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Style or Subject Matter: Which Has More Political Impact?

By Chuck Workman

Martin Sheen in Chuck Workman's Department of Education film, 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President.'

Suppose one of those Oscar nominees that went on stage in solidarity with Michael Moore this year didn't really think that President Bush was a "fictitious president," as Moore stated. Yet not to join Moore up there meant not just being out of the glitter but saying, as a member of our small world of documentaries, that your beliefs might be––forbid the thought––different from Michael Moore's.

Documentaries are certainly comprised of truth, not repackaged fiction, and that truth goes in waves from politically correct to incorrect. The trend has been to the Left usually, from Pare Lorentz's The River (1937) to Democratic stories like Drew Associates' Primary (1960) and DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' The War Room (1993). The important political videos made by Barbara Trent in the early '90s, one of which, The Panama Deception (1992), won an Oscar, were basically one-sided exposés. Nobody cared at the time that they weren't great films. And it doesn't matter to most of us how good Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi filmmaking was.

Subject matter usually triumphs over stylistic considerations in the documentary world. We're affected by the real stories we tell, although we sometimes fail to see how much the way we tell the stories affects the message. Actually, the message more often affects the film––and its reception.

This year I finished two documentaries about the American presidency, one for a non-partisan group founded by Jacqueline Kennedy, the White House Historical Association. It was commissioned to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the West Wing, the place where presidents work, and we showed presidents "at work" during crucial historical moments, like Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, and George W. Bush responding, mostly on CNN, to September 11, 2001.

When the film was screened as part of the West Wing celebration, we got an extremely positive response to the Bush scenes, even from people who don't like him much. But this was early in the post-9/11 period. We found resistance to the same scenes in the same film a few months later in the pre-Iraq war environment, when we went out to find broader distribution. The three broadcast venues we went after––one public, one network, one cable––were all seemingly high on the film six months ago, and are now either quietly not considering it, or waiting for the political climate to change..

We also began a series of documentary films for schools about national holidays for the Department of Education, starting with Presidents Day. We were hired, I think, because they wanted a more modern style than those 16mm epics some of us used to thread up in school. These films would be non-partisan, like the other presidents film. We interviewed some actors who had played presidents, such as Michael Douglas and Dennis Haysbert, and also featured scenes with Martin Sheen. Sheen gave us a charming and not particularly political interview, more about the responsibility of playing a president than the reality of being one. But, as the war in Iraq got closer, and protests began, I couldn't help feeling that Sheen's public positions, many that I supported personally, would affect this project in the wrong way. 

Maybe this was me, or the experience with the other film was coloring my judgment, but like President Bush, Sheen is in many respects more symbol than individual. I didn't worry much about the politics of all this, but more about the responsible way to handle the content of a film that would have to live a long time in institutional settings. There was never any pressure from the Department of Education, even though Sheen's out criticizing the boss every day. They were always behind whatever decisions I made. In the end, I felt that they hadn't hired me to be safe––there are a lot of safe filmmakers out there and the Department knows their numbers. I followed my instinct and held on to Sheen.

Interestingly––or maybe obviously to some––in terms of distribution, Sheen's presence is not as damaging as the President's, but I've learned that can change in one news cycle. I've also learned that to try to predict where the political gods will be when your film is finished, or even worse, to try to bring that consideration into your content, will do more harm than good. The best approach, as usual, is to do what's right for your movie and let any other consideration go.

It's difficult to separate politics from the reality of documentaries, and there are many who would prefer that they not be separated. I agree with Michael Moore a lot, even though I didn't like Bowling for Columbine much; it seemed to me like a bunch of cheap shots in the name of a noble subject. I know the IDA membership, in its wisdom, picked the film as the best documentary ever made, but I have other candidates, like Resnais' Night and Fog––sublime filmmaking, with more political impact because of that than a thousand Oscar speeches.


Chuck Workman newest documentary, The Actor's Life, will be out this fall.