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    Tuesday, August 08, 2006

    American Blackout and the Power of Documentary Film

    Brenda Goodman writes about Ian Inaba's film, American Blackout and its possible impact on the Georgia District 4 congressional race, where Representative Cynthia A. McKinney fights to keep her seat.

    Whether political documentaries affect the outcome of elections is an open question. Michael Moore released his anti-George W. Bush film “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the heat of the 2004 presidential campaign, but Mr. Bush was re-elected. Earlier this year Robert Greenwald announced distribution plans for the movie “The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress,” which he produced, during a primary. Mr. DeLay, a longtime Republican representative from Texas, eventually resigned his seat and left Congress, but the documentary was only a tiny factor in the media storm following his indictment on money laundering charges last year.

    “I think they do reinforce and intensify people’s feelings,” Michael Cornfield, who teaches political strategy and message at George Washington University, said of political documentaries. Do movies influence how or if people vote? “That’s more aspirational than empirical,” he said.

    Still, they try. In late July the producers of “American Blackout,” which was made by the Guerilla News Network, a nonprofit group with operations in New York and California, announced plans to release the film on DVD, including as a special feature interviews with four men, their faces and voices disguised, identified only as black officers with the Capitol Police. The officers, who call the Capitol Hill “the last plantation,” say their white colleagues often made a sport of stopping black members of Congress at security checkpoints, thus bolstering contentions that Ms. McKinney’s troubles with the police were the result of provocation.

    “I’m so happy that filmmakers are taking on the role of investigative journalists,” Ms. McKinney said. “And I’m so happy that we have an alternative media that has arisen as a result of the public’s craving for fact rather than faction.”

    Now, I'm confused on the Rep. McKinney issue - I tend to think she overreacted and took out a lifetime of racism on someone of lower status, which is a forgivable, but certainly unbecoming, response. I imagine it would be beyond infuriating to go unrecognized day after day after day after day. I mean, I've been angry about it at my job, and I'm white and the security guards are black, but, if a racial narrative was being more explicitly played out, I'd probably be far moreso. That said, I'd like to think I'd stop short of assaulting anyone (after all, I'm medicated). But again, this has been blown WAY out of proportion in keeping with a racial mythology: black women are angry and crazy. As a representative she seems to me lackluster, but no more lacking than the great majority of people on the floor of the House of Representatives. Would I vote for her, if I were her constituent? I don't, frankly, know enough about the race.

    So, the particularities of the case aside, I am interested in the deeper question with which this piece is flirting: does/can film influence political outcomes?

    I think that the focus of this piece on specific electoral races, rather than on larger, more expansive goals, does justice to the potential of film, specifically documentary. In other words, I don't think that film can stop the war or fight poverty or, sadly, end global warming, per se. Yes, it can influence how people generally think about things, but I am skeptical that any kind of critical mass can be generated by films, especially since documentaries tend to be limited in their release and

    But, to take the specificity further, I think that, the more local an election, the more likely it is that a documentary could influence the outcome, particularly in terms of voter turnout. The fact of a film even being about something taking place in some of these districts will get people involved. After all, many American districts get very little attention from The Media, and some out-of-towner documenting their political process is exciting and controversial. Also, there is simply much less information out there about congressional races (to say nothing of, say, the local Public Advocate race) so a film's voice is heard more loudly. The filmmaker who puts together a film, critical or laudatory or somewhere in between, on President Bush, is one small voice in a sea of other voices, and, unless the filmmaker is her/himself something of a media star, the film won't make a dent. But even a first-time filmmaker can exert some pressure on a local race.

    But why would anyone do that? Most people don't believe local politics matter. I just heard someone criticizing Ned Lamont for having deigned to serve his local community, as opposed to zooming straight to a senatorial campaign. As my sister-out-law would say, "gag me with a spoon." I'm so sick of the idea that local politics consists entirely of potholes.

    As for whether documentary films are "investigative journalism," they may be "journalistic" but they are not "journalism" and I certainly wouldn't want people to go around thinking they are. The importance of The Truth and Objectivity are fundamental to the enterprise of journalism, right or wrong, real or imaginary; filmmakers' relationships to these concepts vary. Regular readers may know that my partner, A, is in filmland, and I hear stories all the time about documentary filmmakers whose philosophy is basically, "this is not journalism, so make it as interesting and dramatic as possible!" I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. But people should be wary of being manipulated when it comes to politics.

    I am pretty aware that documentaries are often structured around careful manipulation of carefully selected footage yielding a carefully-plotted dramatic arc. And yet, I find myself easily snowed by them: they're just so ... convincing. It is hard not to believe something that you are hearing with your own ears and seeing with your own eyes. Of course, you're never seeing or hearing on your own, you bring 75%, the film's director, cameraperson, editor, and others bring 25%. I remember watching this incredible documentary called The Staircase, which I posted about. I finished the film convinced, convinced that Michael Peterson was not guilty. A quick Google left me thinking I'd been wrong and the man was a murderer. I don't know which is right, but the power of the film on my psyche was more than any article could have. Film has serious advantages as a medium to affect political change, but the advantages are, in many ways, predicated on misunderstanding, by viewers, of how the medium is used by its practitioners to optimum effect.


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