Meet the Trailblazers of Documentary Activism

We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.

Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)

In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Unknown Known’

The title of Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, a profile of the life and career of former Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, is a direct reference to Rumsfeld’s most famous TV appearance. Discussing the evidence (or rather, the glaring lack of evidence) linking Iraq with weapons of mass destruction provided to terrorist groups, which was the stated reason for invading Iraq, Rumsfeld told reporters: “there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” It was a cagey piece of analysis, both a true assessment of the nature of intelligence and an obfuscation of the administration’s intelligence failure, in line with another sophisticated excuse offered up to the press: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” A decade later, the evidence is still absent and Rumsfeld is still refusing to admit that the United States invaded Iraq without provocation or justification, merely suspicions ungrounded in any firm evidence.

It is not exactly a companion piece to The Fog of War, Morris’ documentary on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara who oversaw the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. Like that 2003 documentary, Morris engages with a former Secretary of Defense, discussing a foreign war that was launched and (mis)managed under his watch and the indefensible misconduct and scandals involving American soldiers and officer.

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Videophiled: Errol Morris explores ‘The Unknown Known’

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The Unknown Known (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) is not exactly a companion piece to The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ documentary on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. But like that 2003 documentary this takes on a former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and a foreign war that was launched and (mis)managed under his watch, with indefensible misconduct and scandals, and it is built on defining moments culled from hours of one-on-one interviews with the subject. Where it differs is the response of the subject: Rumsfeld never admits that the basis for war was built on a failure of intelligence or even that it was mistake to invade Iraq and he smiles his explanations to the camera. His smile, with those half-moon eyes suggesting a grandfatherly affection backed by experience and cocksure authority, is the defining image of the film.

Errol Morris is one of the most inventive and engaging non-fiction filmmakers in the world today, using a strong visual presentation to pull audiences in while building his case on excellent research and choice archival materials. But it is his talent as an interviewer and interrogator, honed over decades of filmmaking, that gives the film its dramatic power and its educational punch. Using his trademark Interrotron, a set-up which puts the camera in place of the interviewer as far as the subject is concerned (so they speak directly into the lens while engaging Morris), he confronts Rumsfeld without coming off as confrontational and uses silence as an editorial and a dramatic device. Those dead spaces after Rumsfeld’s statements suggest both an incompleteness and a directorial disagreement. Rumsfeld himself seems to take the production as a platform to lay out the legacy of his statesmanship with the confidence of authority behind his perfectly articulated reasoning that often never quite answers the questions posed to him. There is no doubt that Rumsfeld is both a smart, savvy political players and a polished media creature. But for all the easy-going pose of humility, he isn’t the least bit humble.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by filmmaker Errol Morris and a short interview with Morris discussing the genesis and the production of the documentary. Also features the 57-minute archival presentation “Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense,” an hour-long recording of a conference from 1989 featuring Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara and Caspar Weinberger, and the text of Morris’ four-part New York Times op-ed piece “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.”

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD and digital at Cinephiled

Errol Morris: “The Photographs Actually Hide Things From Us”

My interview with Errol Morris is now on GreenCine. Here’s a clip from the piece:

You mentioned that you had once been a private investigator yourself. Pack is the detective part of the movie, sorting through the evidence to piece together the timeline, but it’s what the evidence reveals that is most interesting, the parts of the story that are not being covered in the media. Your film keeps returning to the photos.

Yes. They’re at the center of the story. Absolutely.

What I think is so amazing about that is that, through the course of the film, you deconstruct the photos. You interview all these people, you uncover all this evidence from these witnesses, yet the only crimes that were prosecuted were those that were photographed, the ones that had the visual evidence, the ones that were seen by the public.

But it gets even worse than that. I have this essay coming out in the New York Times this week on Sabrina’s smile, the photograph of her with her thumb up, the smile and the body of [Manadel] al-Jamadi. Now I remember seeing this photograph for the first time and thinking, “God Lord, what is this? It’s monstrous.”

Sabrina Harman

She didn’t kill him. A CIA interrogator either killed him or was complicit in his death. The brass of the prison was involved in a cover-up. In the log, he’s described as Bernie, from Weekend at Bernie’s, the body which people have to get rid of. It’s an inconvenience because they don’t want to be, in any way, implicated in his death. He’s the hot potato being shuffled about.

Sabrina takes these photographs as an act of civil disobedience, to provide evidence of a crime. In her letter to Kelly, immediately following this whole deal, she says, “The military is nothing but lies. I took these pictures to show what the military’s really, really like.” And here’s the weirdness of it all. The people responsible for al-Jamadi’s death, the people responsible for covering up a murder, skate. Sabrina spends a year in jail.

I think this is the heretical thing. It’s not just that the photographs direct us in a certain way, but they actually hide things from us. They make us think that we know a story when in fact we don’t know the story at all, or we know the wrong story. It’s endlessly fascinating to me and I would like to set the record straight. That represents to me an incredible miscarriage of justice. Taking a picture of a body to expose the military and to expose a crime, to me, is not a crime. Murder is a crime.

And, of course, none of the trials dealt with that. They were concerned solely with the abuses that were photographed. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, only those crimes seen in the photos that made their way into the media, that had been exposed to the public, were pursued in the prosecutions.

That’s correct. They became very effective symbols, scapegoats, and the photographs helped.

They became symbols, too.

That’s absolutely true.

The complete interview is here. I also review the film here.

New reviews: ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ and ‘Jellyfish’

The infamous photographs of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and detainees (some of them innocent of any crime) by American MPs at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad have become iconic imagery of American military shame, displayed so many times that they have begun to lose their shock value.

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"Standard Operating Procedure"

Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure returns to these photographs, which were taken from three separate cameras and freely shared with other servicemen and women posted at the prison, as exhibit A in his investigation of what happened, how it happened and why it happened. They are the evidence that broke the story to the public and the raw material used by military investigator Brent Pack to construct a timeline of events. But they have since become symbols loaded with meanings accrued over time and media overexposure. Morris challenges us to really understand what the pictures show and what they don’t show, and what they really mean.

Along with soldiers, army investigators, a civilian interrogator, and former Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, Errol Morris interviews five of the seven indicted MPs (including Lynndie England, whose “thumbs up” poses with naked prisoners gave her instant global notoriety). They all speak directly into the camera (courtesy of his “Interrotron” system) to confront us directly with their stories. The technique grants them a palpable level of respect and challenges us to really confront them. It’s not that Morris thinks they are merely innocent dupes in a larger conspiracy, but he does believe that their stories deserve to be heard.

Morris is a filmmaker as detective, looking for contradictions, comparing the stories of witnesses, trying to find out the stories that we’re not being told. The result is not simply a political documentary, it’s a police procedural, an investigative mystery, a study in perceptions, a portrait in how the media shapes a story and how the government shapes a story for the media.

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