April 30, 2004

Agit-Doc: How 'Uncovered' Became an Activist Tool

From director/producer Robert Greenwald's 'Uncovered' which was sold online prior to its theatrical release and airing on television. Courtesy of Robert Greenwald

When was the last time a documentary inspired Americans to throw 3,000 viewing parties for nearly 100,000 people, making $850,000 in the first three days of distribution alone?

When was the last time a documentary screening was co-sponsored by four competing presidential candidates, enabling the Dean, Kerry, Clark and Kucinich campaigns to put aside their differences for a night in Los Angeles to support the film and its defining issue?

How many documentaries have inspired a punk rock band to approach the filmmaker for 10-20,000 copies of the film to hand out to fans on their tour?

Yet this is just the kind of devotion that Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War has stirred in the public.

Like many good documentaries, says Uncovered's producer/director, Robert Greenwald, "this one started with pure rage," when he read that the Bush Administration's stated reason for invading Iraq last year had changed from "weapons of mass destruction" to "programs of mass destruction. "And at that moment," he recalls, "I envisioned the juxtaposition of programs versus weapons, and the next day I heard that CIA folks were opposing the way information was being used."

Feeling that the film would be more effective in reaching people if the controversy over the rationale for the Iraq War were presented even-handedly, Greenwald intentionally allows the interviewees—high-level CIA and Pentagon officials, foreign service officers and weapons inspectors, many of whom had favored going to war—to effectively speak out against the Administration. And he kept in check his own view that "a small group of neo-conservatives have essentially managed to change the policies and actions of this country and for the first time lead us into a pre-emptive war."

Greenwald has made about 50 films, all of which have been distributed through network and cable television and theaters. But for Uncovered, he envisioned a two-tier distribution approach from the start to ensure that the film would quickly get into the hands of people who cared passionately about the issue.

"When I think about it now, I realize that it's very unusual to have a film about a social issue finished while we're still struggling with the issue," Greenwald admits. "Usually it's years later when you can look back on it. So it became a different experience and I had to draw a line and say ‘I'm going to stop researching and finish the film because every day we're getting new information.' This is the kind of movie I could have spent two years working on."

The Internet was chosen as the exclusive distribution medium, and MoveOn.org, a nonprofit advocacy group that's been a force in the anti-war movement, was chosen as the primary player. The film is also being sold on AlterNet.org, TheNation.com, Buzzflash.com, TakeBacktheMedia.com and CenterforAmericanProgress.com.

 "MoveOn.org doesn't usually sponsor documentary films, but this movie is a really important one," says Wes Boyd, co-founder of the grassroots group. "True to the MoveOn ethic, Greenwald lets the facts speak for themselves, and the results are pretty shocking."

MoveOn helped finance the film and promoted it to the organization's online subscriber base of 1.7 million by offering a free copy of the film for the first 10,000 people who donated $30 or more to the MoveOn.org Voter Fund ad campaign. (The donations are being used to challenge President Bush's policies by creating and airing political ads in electoral swing states.)

In a very proactive and interactive endeavor to maximize Uncovered's impact, the MoveOn team encouraged its members to host their own house parties on December 7, 2003, all of which were united in a mass conference call with the filmmaker. MoveOn expected a few hundred parties; instead, about 3,000 parties, hosting up to 100,000 people, erupted across the country.

From both a filmmaker's and an activist's point-of-view, Greenwald thinks it's extraordinary that, rather than finding a documentary while channel-surfing, the party-goers made a commitment to go to someone's house, view the film and participate in a discussion afterwards.

No less extraordinary are the distribution figures: about 50,000 copies sold and over $1 million raised.

This Internet campaign was combined with a screening strategy driven by a high-profile November 3rd launch of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. The Soros Foundation then presented screenings in New York City and Los Angeles.

It was both the need to meet the deadline and the desire to get the film distributed while the topic was still being debated that created one of the biggest challenges for the filmmaker-the film's four-month timeline from inception to completion.

The Uncovered team of editors, researchers and co-producers had to complete 25 interviews and review hundreds of pieces of stock footage during this time. "People would come in at eight in the morning and leave at nine at night and then another team would come in at ten at night and work until six in the morning," Greenwald says. "And this went on seven days a week."

Since the film essentially had two storylines, "it required almost two storytelling techniques, and there was a need to have two teams working," Greenwald notes. One storyline was reconstructed through stock footage of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and others, while the interviewees—who offered opinions opposing what was being presented in the first storyline—told the second storyline.

What was it that made these high-level officials agree to be part of this controversial, critical film? The interviewees, says Greenwald, were "the heart and soul of the film...really courageous and smart people who were willing to risk their careers, reputations and friendships in order to speak out. They defined ‘patriotism' to me in the best sense of the word."

The participation of Joe Wilson, the former Ambassador to Iraq who found to be false President Bush's assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address about uranium in Niger being sold to the Iraqis, was key in opening doors to other experts' involvement in the project.

Greenwald also attributes the subjects' cooperation to his being extremely well-briefed about their backgrounds and carefully explaining that the film would be about the publicly stated reasons for going to war, not about the merits or conduct of the war per se. It wasn't going to be "a rant and rave, but very cut-and-dried: Was the administration accurate or not?"

Even considering the extraordinary public success of Uncovered, is there a concern that the film is often converting the converted? While the core viewers regard the film as an affirmation of their beliefs, many are trying to broaden the dialogue by using the film to reach out to those with differing views.

One example is Military Families Speak Out. Hundreds of copies of Uncovered have been given to its members, who are now showing it to their peers, including those who support the war.

The film will also be offered on Netflix as a Netflix First and is going to be offered to traditional retailers, such as WalMart, Best Buy and Borders.

Uncovered managed to tap this tremendous base of support through three factors: (1) the foresight that the defining issue of the film would be seized by the anti-war movement; (2) the importance of releasing the film while the topic was still hot, and (3) the recognition that the Internet would be key in getting the message out.

Citing the Maoist philosophy of "letting a thousand flowers bloom" Greenwald believes Uncovered is "now in the hands of the people who are seeing and responding to it, and each day different people have different ideas about how to use it." And on the way they're uncovering a new path to film activism.

 

Jana Germano is a freelance writer covering film and media issues. She can be reached at janagermano@comcast.net.

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