Anybody watching?

Michael Moore’s success as an activist filmmaker has helped to spurn an entire industry. But do protest documentaries ever change anything?

By Steve Rose  /  The Guardian

Mon, Oct 21, 2013 - Page 12

What are you doing about global warming? Or fracking? Arab democracy? Diminishing bee populations? Nuclear energy? Gun control? Repression in Uganda? Russia? Burma? Increasingly, what we’re doing about the world’s problems seems to be watching documentaries on them — which does feel like doing something, while at the same time being very close to doing nothing.


In the past month we’ve already had films on bees (More Than Honey), the Internet and children (InRealLife), and climate change denial (Greedy Lying Bastards), not to mention WikiLeaks dramatization The Fifth Estate — for those who didn’t get enough from recent WikiLeaks documentary We Steal Secrets. Next week’s issue doc is Project Wild Thing, in which film-maker David Bond embarks on a crusade to market “nature” to the iPad-fixated, outdoors-phobic youth of Britain. The irony of making a film to encourage kids to get outside more instead of watching films is not lost on Bond, and there is a sense that many other films in this category, in effect, do the same thing with grownups: gluing us to our seats with a pressing issue, then chiding us for not getting out of those seats and doing something. Could it be that documentaries are the problem as much as the solution? Are any of these films actually affecting the issues they’re championing? And are any of us really watching them anyway?

It’s almost rude to ask — and that’s potentially part of the problem. Much has been made in recent years of a documentary golden age, with more films reaching more people than ever before. In 2012, documentaries accounted for just over 13 percent of all UK cinema releases, but just 0.5 percent of the box office. And the year’s highest-grossing documentary was Katy Perry: Part of Me. In fact, strip out the big-hitting music, nature and sports docs, and there’s a nagging feeling that a great deal of well-intentioned work is being seen by virtually nobody.

But issue docs tend to get a relatively easy ride from critics. It would take a heart of stone to downgrade, say, an expose of abuses in orphanages, because of poor camerawork or slack pacing. Combine that with the relatively low costs of producing documentaries, and you’ve got a potential avalanche of narrow-interest releases of questionable cinematic value. As critic Mike D’Angelo put it a few years ago: “Non-fiction films have been overrun in recent years by visually undistinguished, fundamentally expository pseudo-films that amount to little more than illustrated magazine articles.”

Unlike fiction features, the success or failure of a documentary cannot be gauged solely in terms of artistic or commercial considerations. D’Angelo was contrasting the current wave of issue docs with Errol Morris’s superlative The Thin Blue Line, a cinematically accomplished film that also had a tangible result: securing the freedom of a man who had been wrongly sentenced to death for shooting a cop. In recent years, to be fair, a number of high-profile docs (Mea Maxima Culpa, The House I Live In) have proved to exert a significant influence on their subjects. One figure that looms large in the activist movie landscape, for better and worse, is Michael Moore. Moore did everything he wasn’t supposed to, wading into big issues and corporate offices uninvited, unashamedly putting himself in the frame, and presenting his findings with unschooled populism and personal indignation. The approach reaped dividends — commercially as well as socio-politically. Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time by some margin, even if its anti-neocon polemic wasn’t enough to prise George W Bush out of the White House. Bowling For Columbine won Moore an Oscar but couldn’t dent US gun laws, even if its pertinence persists with every subsequent mass shooting. And despite disputes over its accuracy, Sicko, Moore’s 2007 analysis of the US’s lopsided healthcare system, could be credited with laying the groundwork for Barack Obama’s current struggle to reform the sector.


Moore’s courage and passion should be applauded, but his commercial success inspired a wave of issue-chasing docs, and film-makers whose primary subject is themselves. The most successful example would be Morgan Spurlock, whose Super Size Me neatly stuck it to the fast food industry via his own comic persona. Project Wild Thing is in effect a Spurlock-style stunt mission, relaying its serious message about reconnecting with nature through Bond’s light-hearted ups and downs, just as his previous film, Erasing David, hinged on his slightly gimmicky attempts to evade the state surveillance network.

Ironically, the current standard has been set by a notoriously personality-free public figure: Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth had none of the wit or zip of a Moore or Spurlock movie — it’s essentially one of those “illustrated magazine articles” D’Angelo bemoaned — but the film’s message of imminent environmental catastrophe as a result of man-made global warming struck home. Of course, it was a box-office hit, and in terms of awards, it got Gore not only an Oscar but a Nobel peace prize — beat that Michael Moore! But what also distinguished An Inconvenient Truth was its measurable impact. According to its producers, Participant Media, the proportion of Americans who thought global warming was a real issue before the movie’s release was 30 percent, and after it was 87 percent. They also take credit for the introduction of 15 climate change bills in Congress, plus numerous corporate and personal carbon-reduction schemes. The movie became part of the curriculum in schools in the US and here in the UK.

The success of An Inconvenient Truth has been double-edged for Participant. On the one hand, it has backed a string of successful campaigning documentaries: Lucy Walker’s Countdown To Zero (on nuclear disarmament), Food Inc (on industrial agriculture), and The Cove (on Japan’s slaughter of dolphins and whales). But it has also produced fictional movies with varying degrees of topicality. Some have been hits — Syriana, The Help, Contagion — but many have been liberal Hollywood disasters.

Significantly, though, many of Participant’s films are now augmented by bespoke social action campaigns, which could include, local screenings, debates, discussions, petitions and pledges. The power to effect change and the power to promote duff movies could get confused here, but it’s an increasingly common strategy. “Before, film-makers would send a film off like a dove,” says Jess Search, chief executive of the Britdoc foundation, a not-for-profit documentary support organization. “You’d put it out into the world and hope it got seen by a large number of people and that many of those people would be moved to see the world differently. What’s happened is a field has developed around that.” That field, says Search, tries to use film strategically to reach the desired audience and enable specific discussions.

Doc-friendly organizations such as Britdoc now assess the potential “usefulness” of projects at development stage, supporting those most likely to make an impact and devising wider campaigns around them. Search cites Penny Woolcock’s recent documentary One Mile Away as an example. “Penny spent two years helping to negotiate a truce between the two biggest gangs in Birmingham, then making and releasing that film, getting it in front of urban audiences in other parts of the country so that they might start discussions in their communities about how they can reduce violence.” The film is credited with a drastic reduction in gang-related crime in Birmingham, says Search. “This wasn’t something Penny started off doing because she thought it would be a commercial success.”

Likewise, for all its self-centered gimmickry, Project Wild Thing’s mission to get kids off their tablets and into the woods is backed up by a “Wild Network” of 300 charities committed to tackling these issues, including the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. What could have been the flaw in the movie’s message has turned into an asset, via a campaign to get youngsters to “swap screen time for wild time”. So in theory, issue cinema is a more powerful tool than ever, and making more change than ever, with more backup than ever -- which means artistic merit is more important than ever, not less. To have a transformative effect, you still have to make a good film.