Documentaries: Activity 5

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Representing Different Voices

Scottish documentarian John Grierson believed that documentaries could be an important part of the democratic process. According to Grierson, the issues facing democracies have become so complicated that it is difficult for an ordinary citizen to participate in government in a meaningful way. Documentaries can dramatize issues and their implications for society, and by advocating for certain policies, contribute to political debate.

Prelude to War(1942), directed by Frank Capra, used animation over confiscated enemy newsreel footage to illustrate its point of view.

When representing events, people, places and causes ignored by governments and mainstream media, documentaries may be perceived as opposing governing institutions. In fact, documentary films often do challenge the status quo, but they may also advocate for special causes without questioning the existing social system. Some are funded by government institutions or businesses that wish to make a case for their policies. Grierson, Dziga Vertov, a Russian filmmaker in the 1920s, and American Pare Lorentz all made films with government support.

During the early days of the U.S.S.R., special “agit-trains” fitted with projectors and screens brought newsreel footage and filmed “fragments of actuality” (similar to Lumière’s actualities) to small villages and towns. They were intended to inform all U.S.S.R. citizens about the benefits of the Bolshevik revolution.

Sponsored by the U.S. Resettlement Administration, Lorentz’s documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) shows the ecological causes of the Dust Bowl and the devastating effects of the disaster on farmers and their families. The film was made to explain and develop support for the conservation policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, and Roosevelt’s opponents accused the film of being election-year propaganda.

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) focused on the burgeoning punk rock music scene of Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Courtesy of Spheerisfilms.

Government funding organizations such as the National Film Board of Canada and the Public Broadcasting System in the United States have sponsored a wide range of documentaries that do not necessarily promote a political policy, including the PBS Frontline series and the Academy Award-nominated 1964 film Kenojuak, about an Eskimo artist.

Government-sponsored films are often seen as propaganda—films intended to sway the public with one-sided, misleading or half-true statements. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Convention in Nuremberg, and exalts Hitler and his politics. In Germany, the film was used successfully as pro-Hitler propaganda, but it was also used by Hitler’s enemies to demonstrate the chilling nature of his power.

During World War II, documentaries made in support of the war effort included films about the war (Combat Report), the home front (Henry Browne, Farmer and It’s Everybody’s War) and business and industry (A Ship Is Born), all made in 1942. In the 1942 film Prelude to War, a narrator guides the audience through the issues that faced the United States before its entry into World War II.

Documentaries such as Desert Victory (1943) and The Battle of San Pietro (1945) depict the campaigns and battles of war, sometimes highlighting victories, sometimes death and destruction. Atrocities and war crimes are also a potent subject. In the 1970 film Interviews with My Lai Veterans, five veterans talk about the 1968 My Lai massacre. The short documentary One Survivor Remembers (1995) is the story of one woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps.

War documentaries may vilify the enemy or emphasize the heroic qualities of the home country and its allies; others condemn war. In Year of the Pig (1968), made during the Vietnam War, uses interviews with many individuals and juxtaposition of sound and image to present a critical view of American foreign policy.

Operation Vittles (1948), about the Berlin Airlift, and Seeds of Destiny (1946), which focuses on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s efforts to aid children, are representative of documentaries that promoted post-war policies.

Over 200 documentaries were produced with funds from the European Recovery Program, popularly known as the Marshall Plan. Emphasizing European solidarity and cooperation, they were intended to counteract war-time propaganda and move Europe toward post-war democracy. The films, which were prohibited from screening in the U.S. until 1990, ranged from informational to anti-Communist propaganda to what we would now call docu-drama.

The Thin Blue Line (1988) used staged re-enactment scenes of a police officer's murder to illustrate incongruities in the testimony of various witnesses. Photo courtesy of Errol Morris.

The American civil rights movement, the women’s movement and minority rights have been the subjects of numerous films. In the late 1960s, for the first time, many of the films were made by members of these groups telling their own stories. With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade (1978), for example, was made by a team of women documentarians and concerns an automobile strike during the 1930s as remembered by the women who took part. Tupac: Resurrection (2004) uses the rapper’s own words to tell the story of his life.

The 1993 film The War Room documents Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The film by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus does not represent a particular political point of view; rather, its subject is the political process itself. The film captures what it was like to run for president at the end of the twentieth century.

Some documentarians advocate for special causes, policies or political positions. Hanna Polak used her documentary The Children of Leningradsky to raise awareness of homeless children in Leningrad and to help fund outreach programs for abandoned orphans. Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 takes a strong stand against the policies of George W. Bush.

A record of public action at the local level, The Collector of Bedford Street (2002), is a short documentary about Larry Selman, filmmaker Alice Elliott’s 60-year-old neighbor. Although developmentally disabled, Larry raises thousands of dollars for charity every year while living in poverty himself. In recognition of Larry’s service to the community, his neighbors organized an adult trust to take care of his financial needs.

Show your students one of the documentaries listed above or a similar documentary of your choice. Ask them to identify who is telling the story, whether it is the filmmaker, the subject of the film, or someone else. Have them discuss the theme of the film. Then ask them if they agree with John Grierson that documentaries are an important part of the democratic process.

Supplemental Activity

Political documentaries sometimes walk a fine line between advocacy and propaganda. Show the students two films or parts of films that deal with the same topic and compare and contrast their treatment of the topic. Have them consider how a film like Triumph of the Will could be used to support both the pro-Nazi and the anti-Nazi positions.

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