9/11 Docuganda: Figuring out the 'Fahrenheit' Phenomenon
By Pamela Yoder
"Can it be that it was all just a dream?"
So opens Michael Moore's blockbuster documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. For the documentary world, that question hangs in the air. It wasn't that long ago that Bowling for Columbine had documentary filmmakers heralding the new "golden age" of docs. Now that Fahrenheit 9/11 has hit center stage, it seems that documentary is ready to take a significant place both economically and editorially in the world of ideas. But within documentary circles, this explosion of media interest and the sniffing around of studio executives is being met with a mix of suspicion and regret.
The documentary form has been fueled by passionate, creative and industrious believers who scrape together budgets, cut corners and toil for years. It's the rare documentary filmmaker who can honestly attest to having made a living on his/her work. And so the advent of real political power—some have suggested that Michael Moore will have earned significant credit if President George W. Bush is unseated—as well as the potential to turn $6 million into $115 million and still counting, makes documentary filmmakers the new pretty girl at the dance. Maybe we liked our wallflower role a bit better.
Almost as a safety reflex, some filmmakers are saying that Fahrenheit 9/11 simply isn't a doc at all. And the mainstream media, which took a bit of a beating after the film's release, are happy to pile on.
But Nancy Buirski, executive director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, says the debate about what is a "real documentary" is off base. "Documentary takes many forms," she says. "It's a very elastic phrase. People like to pigeon-hole it as a way of dealing with the truth. They're not about truth, but the search for truth. The whole 'Is it really a documentary?' question is, in my opinion, ridiculous."
Ouch. Ridiculous isn't a word to be trifled with. And a herd of filmmakers rides to Moore's rescue as well. "They said Sherman's March wasn't really a documentary when it came out in 1986," recalls filmmaker Ross McElwee. "Which is probably why it was not nominated for an Oscar, so I've been hearing this 'not a documentary' nonsense for many years. I think that finally people, including the Oscar committees, are seeing that 'documentary' can in fact embrace a large swath of styles and approaches, including those employed in Fahrenheit 9/11."
But not everyone is willing to let the "documentary" label be bestowed without a more critical sub-heading. "Sure, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a documentary," says David Grubin, whose award-winning nonfiction work (Truman; FDR; LBJ) has been a mainstay on PBS for years. "There are all kinds of ways to take the stuff of the world and put it on film without using actors. What interests me is the kind of documentary it is, and that's pretty obvious: It's a piece of propaganda. It's futile to argue about how effective it is. All we can say is that millions of people are going to see it. But let's call it by its name: propaganda."
In interviews for this story, that word came up a few times, along with a few choice observations: "He had an agenda"..."It wasn't an exploration"..."It was a pointed and reasoned argument."...And the debate didn't fall on party lines. It seems that the film's in-your-face approach annoyed more people than those who were willing to be quoted in these pages.
We may have reached the heart of the matter, because no one goes to a cocktail party and proudly proclaims to be a propaganda maker. And what Grubin says in public seems to be a popular debate among the cinerati. Has Moore opened the door for documentary, or has he lowered the standards of the form?
Cara Mertes, executive producer of PBS' POV series, which has aired two of Moore's films—Pets and Meat and Roger & Me—sees Moore as another branch in the documentary tree. "Nonfiction filmmaking has a long and rich history of innovation and experimentation," Mertes notes. "We've been a leader in showcasing new forms of documentary, including the personal essay, journalism, experimental work, even work with animation in it. For us, the story needs to have a basis in events that actually happened, but the treatment can range from very experimental to very traditional."
But what about Moore's agenda? He's said he wants to remove the President of the United States from office. Most documentary filmmakers cringe at the thought that their film has a goal or agenda.
"Moore's an ideologue, not an artist," says Grubin. "An artist is open to experience; an ideologue is serving a cause. An artist observes the world around him and lets it change him; an ideologue wants to change his audience. For most of us, documentary filmmaking is a voyage of discovery. It's like being on a sailboat where the wind blows where it will, and it's best not to try too hard to steer a steady course. Moore knows exactly where he is going. He's the captain of a submarine loaded with nuclear warheads."
But McElwee sees a certain honesty in Moore's objective, and points his finger instead at the mainstream news media. "Michael was certainly willing to go where CNN et al refused to go during the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq," McElwee observes. "He wasn't co-opted by being embedded. Of course, he had the luxury of being able to reconsider footage shot a year earlier by those embedded journalists. He could reframe it, recontextualize it. But the point is, the news media outlets, as far as I'm aware, have not even consented to that much. They can't really reconsider their reporting from that moment in history. It would be too self- incriminating."
But not all filmmakers are open to idea that documentary can embrace a myriad of styles and techniques. Don't we just want to tell the truth and let the world do what's right? Has Moore crossed the line?
"Every filmmaker that I deal with wants their film to have an impact," says Buirski. "They are all trying to change your minds. It's all couched in a story, but they all want to impact their viewers." Now we're in interesting territory. If all filmmakers are activists cloaked in the guise of truth, then audiences are being exposed to agendas every day. Moore just wears his on his sleeve. And Buirski doesn't think he has any obligation to tell the truth—just to challenge us to search for it: "He doesn't have a responsibility to be true; he has a reasonability to make us think."
"It was great to hear people discussing the election as they stood in line to go into Fahrenheit 9/11 and then hear the discussions continue as they exited," McElwee observes. "It seems to me that Fahrenheit 9/11 is not so much investigative as illustrative filmmaking. None of the information about Bush and his connection to the Saudi royal family is new. Moore does us a service by condensing the arguments and putting it up on the screen in ways that are both entertaining and disturbing."
OK, so we'll agree to disagree. And after all, who cares? If you're pro-Bush, you'll argue that the film is preaching to the converted. And if you're looking to get John Kerry in office, which seems to be the predominant view of the filmmaking community, why not just smile, nod and let Moore have it out with his club and megaphone? Not so fast, says Grubin.
"It's not a bad idea to remember what Woodrow Wilson said when he saw Birth of a Nation, the first film ever screened in the White House. Enthralled, Wilson called it 'history written with lightning.' Too bad Griffith's film made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson was a pretty smart guy—Princeton and all that—but he sympathized with Griffith's point of view, so he let himself be swept away."
But McElwee isn't willing to dismiss Moore's work so quickly. "Some very powerful films have some very strong agendas," he maintains. "Michael Moore fixates on a political issue and then goes all out to target that issue. There's nothing wrong with that. Documentaries with strong political agendas have been around for decades. Barbara Kopple did it with Harlan County, USA a quarter of a century ago."
"Many people limit the definition of documentary to a traditional approach reflecting a more journalistic attempt to be balanced, fair, accurate and objective," Mertes points out. "At POV, documentary is seen not as a form of journalism, but as a storytelling genre; it functions as a way to express the maker's understanding of the world. We look for fairness and accuracy, but as a showcase for explicitly perspective-based work. Balance and objectivity are not the primary values we seek in work."
But if we agree that documentary is evolving into a series of more accurately labeled sub-genres, is that the entire matter? And how does the success of Fahrenheit 9/11 impact conventional news reporting? David Klatell should be able to draw a clear line between docs and news; he teaches both. He's a documentary teacher and a journalism professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
He sees the Michael Moore-ing of American media as inevitable and complicated. What's the difference between a documentary and a news report? "There are no sharp delineations on the 'borders' of these genres," says Klatell. "The difference is impossible to locate precisely on a continuum of storytelling techniques, which in literature traverses biography, memoir, narrative nonfiction, roman à clef and, finally, fiction."
So, if the fuzzing of the line between fact and fiction is inevitable, perhaps that's not such a bad thing after all. But Klatell is less optimistic: "It is a bad thing that the underpinnings of all truths—verification, evidence, direct observation and careful testing of the proposed truth against alternate hypotheses and interpretations—has largely been discarded in favor of emotion, vehemence, charter-espoused tropes and the manipulation of raw materials, whether by technology or editorial bias. It is also a very bad thing that so many viewers say, 'I know the truth when I see it,' when this assertion is demonstrably false."
It's unfair to suggest that Klatell is painting Moore with this brush, since that's not what he said. But clearly Fahrenheit 9/11 has ruffled more than a few feathers. Within the community of historical documentary makers like Grubin, the battle between personal politics and long-term survival of classical docs is more than cocktail party conversation. And within the news business, Moore's full frontal attack on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and, of course, Fox has the networks both embracing the phenomenon of political docs and defending themselves from Moore's charge that he made the film in large part because the media didn't do their jobs.
But Moore has more than his share of converts as well. Filmmaker Al Maysles was critical of Moore's work for years—without actually having seen any of his films. "I thought that Michael Moore was a phony, and he manipulated things," Maysles admits. But then he saw Fahrenheit 9/11. Now he says of the charge that Moore isn't objective, "It closes off the process of discovery. When we say objective, we get into the realm of scientific vs. art. Art can be truthful, but not in that cold laboratory, archival sort of approach." But objective or not, for Maysles the ends justify the means: "I saw the film and changed my mind. It was a very useful medium for changing the Bush Administration. I found no fault with the film from a factual point of view, [although] he took too much license when Mr. Bush was with the children in the school. Who knows what was on Bush's mind?"
And other filmmakers are even more passionate in their support of Moore and the film: "What does it mean when a critic says that Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't a doc? It means they don't deserve to be a film critic," filmmaker and D-Word Community founder Doug Block asserts. "It means they're lazy and clueless and don't have the foggiest idea of what a documentary is, or how wide a range of forms and styles and conventions it can embrace. Fahrenheit 9/11 is an essay film, pure and simple, and those kinds of docs have been around for a long time. Where have these 'critics' been?"
Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't the only box office success among documentaries this year. At press time, Super Size Me had grossed $11.5 million, while Control Room and The Corporation had pulled in $2.4 million and $1.6 million, respectively. So do these big numbers make life easier for working filmmakers? "Well, it looks like bigger distributors may take docs a bit more seriously for a while," Block admits. "And when the next batch doesn't do anything remotely approaching Fahrenheit 9/11 numbers, they'll go back to chasing hotshot Hollywood wannabes.
"The impact will hopefully last longer with savvy distributors who have realistic expectations of what docs will do in the marketplace," Block continues. "The big question is, Will they put the kind of dollar commitment into prints and advertising with docs as they do with indie fiction features? My guess is that once the presidential election is over, the current fascination with political films will drop off and the industry bigwigs will go back to saying, 'Love your film, babe; just don't know how to market it.'
"I think a far more telling case than Fahrenheit 9/11 is the success of Super Size Me," Block notes. "It seemed like Michael Moore meets Jackass, and really brought home the impact reality TV has had on the culture. For me, the most encouraging success of all has been that of Spellbound. If distributors with some resources get behind story- and character-driven docs like that, then it'll be very interesting to see what happens."
Once the consumer accepts the documentary as a viable form, it's no longer the "D-word." And people will pay to see documentaries in theaters. So, what's at stake? Says Buirski, "It's a bit scary because blockbusters don't help all filmmaking stay on track. Once the market starts to take over, how does this compromise the pure filmmaking? They might be overtaken by the oversized personalities. But they may be forced to rethink putting themselves in front of the camera."
And Grubin goes further: "There's the danger. I agree with Moore; I desperately want Bush out of office, too. But just wait until right wing filmmakers start making documentaries like Moore's. We're going to have to fight tooth and nail to explain how the power of our medium can be hijacked to serve any cause. And we're going to have a tough time making our case because we're all so pleased that Moore's film might help bring Bush down."
But Moore's impact on documentary could be felt long before Fahrenheit 9/11.. "Michael Moore has reshaped the economics and the definition of documentary over his career," Cara Mertes maintains. "His work has opened new avenues for expression, establishing essay and opinion as viable forms of filmmaking within the documentary genre. In that sense, his work has validated documentary as a mainstream source of entertainment and information.
"Documentary is one of the dominant narrative expressions of the modern age," Mertes continues. "It is the new literature. The nonfiction field is exploding with possibility, yet also suffering from over-exposure, and increasingly improbable financial expectations and formulaic filmmaking. More people than ever are identifying as visual storytellers using the nonfiction forms, and audiences are growing more accustomed to seeing documentaries as a viable form of entertainment as well as an information source."
If Michael Moore's role is to engage people in the emotional art of separating fact from fiction, it may be that unseating a president won't be his most significant accomplishment. In a world where big media get to stand on top of the electronic mountain and deliver "facts," and small media (code for documentary filmmakers) need to toss our homebrew DVDs over the garden wall, Moore's willingness to force us all to examine the ideas we consume and the agenda of their makers could well be the most significant public service that Fahrenheit 9/11 will perform.
Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at Steve.Rosenbaum@MagnifyMedia.com.