The Fight for Docu-Democracy

NEW YORK — 2004 has been called the Year of Documentaries.

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 demonstrated that there is a large global market (half a billion in box office sales to date) for dissenting perspectives that can compete for mainstream movie goers and attention.

Beyond the proliferation and success of compelling well made films — The Corporation, Control Room, Hijacking Catastrophe, The World According to Bush, Bush Family Fortunes, Out Foxed, etc and, hopefully, my soon to be released WMD — there is a deeper meaning to this phenomenon that directly impacts on the media and democracy fight.

The docu-explosion is part of the emergence of an oppositional culture responding to the decline of quality in our media system, the uniformity of its approach to news and information and growing distrust it has spawned.

As media scandals continue to erupt, the media system itself is seen as a threat to democracy, not its savior. Can an alternative emerge?

Media critics see an emerging docu-democracy movement.

Professor Gary McClennan: “What is going on I think is firstly and most obviously a process of the development of a truly oppositional culture that demands product — that includes among other things heroes like Moore and Chomsky, and films that act as the antidote to the ‘news’ produced by media giants and corporations.”

American University’s Pat Aufterheide: “It emphatically shows what it takes to cut through the data-smog (as David Shenk terms it) of our overheated mass culture. We’re all info-overloaded, and put-upon. Emotion and attitude cut through. Right-wing talk show hosts long ago seized on this insight and ran with it, and now they daily blot out wild and never-substantiated claims in the name of free speech and being irate.”

Kevin Lally, editor of Film Journal: “Multiple factors may underlie the surge in political pop culture. The ownership of mass media by giant conglomerates makes independent film one of the few places where criticism of corporate chicanery can reach a large audience.”

Leaders in the film industry are betting on it. Philippe Diaz, of Cinema Libre Studio which distributes these films thinks: “People will tell you that five or 10 years ago, they never would have thought to go to a documentary in the theater, but because now they are so disenfranchised by what they see on TV in terms of news, they go to theaters to see a movie.”

The spread and popularity of film festivals worldwide testifies to the growing public interest in connecting with other visions and voices. They have created a platform for screening these films and also a venue for film-goers to interact with film makers by asking questions, taking part on panels and voting on films in competition.

Having spent months on this circuit showing WMD at festivals in Nantucket, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Dallas and overseas in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and others, I interacted with thousands of people of all backgrounds who packed screenings and participated in a way that the traditional media does not permit

The growing number of film students and media programs is another sign of interest in a broader media transformation. Increasingly concerns about the media system are part media education. At the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IFDA) there were also panels, “talk shows,” master classes, and the IFDA Academy to provide a link between documentary makers and professional practice.

Another event, the IFDA forum, a place where film makers can pitch commissioning editors from TV stations and discuss their work with colleagues. This makes for access in a way that film makers rarely encounter when they have to go one on one with buyers who often have predetermined prejudices to what they will and won’t run. Many festivals also offer markets where films can be screened and sold to distributors and channels.

There were 250 films shown in Amsterdam (out of 2500 submitted). The problem is still where can we see them? Our own TV channels prefer lowest denominator reality shows, lifestyle and wildlife films rather than hard hitting program might turn some interests groups off or alienate an advertiser. This has led to risk-adverse environment where even films like Fahrenheit 911 are censored and suppressed by unbrave TV stations despite proven success in attracting audiences.

Unfortunately, public television in America is sometimes even more tepid and conservative that its commercial counterparts. Documentary films will not change the world but they can and do raise awareness and inspire us to realize what is possible and worth fighting for. Filmmakers need more resources and less opposition and inhibiting costs from a restrictive rights culture.

Filmmaker Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent and other films) calls on all media workers to promote the new digital revolution. He calls for a fight against the “apocalyptic, mega-media locusts; old Hollywood; old Fictive Fantasy; Old Reality; Old News: Old World, Old Vision; Old In-humedia: Old Disembodied corporate dreams.”

He wants a “multi-logue” not a monologue.

And so do many of us.

– News Dissector Danny Schechter has made fifteen documentaries. His latest WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) opens this month in selected theaters. See wmdthefilm.com for more information.

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