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]
Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is a landmark documentary: a bold, uncompromising investigation into the American involvement in Vietnam War made while the war was still raging (though released after the American withdrawal). Something so critical of the sitting government may not seem so revolutionary today—you see that on the cable news channels every night—but in the early seventies it was such a provocative position that the studio balked at releasing the film. I wrote about it for the Turner Classic Movies website.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Peter Davis’s documentary on the American involvement in the war in Vietnam debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974, just a year after the American withdrawal and months before the resignation of President Richard Nixon. With the debate over the war still raging, Hearts and Minds became almost as controversial itself. Critics called it one-sided and anti-American, and indeed the film does not address the atrocities inflicted upon American soldiers by the Viet Cong. But then it was never Davis’s intention to present an objective history of the war. The title was taken from a phrase used by President Lyndon Johnson to justify the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam: “the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” That phrase frames the film. Looking back on the film in 2001, Davis explained that he went into the film with three questions on his mind: “Why did we go to Vietnam, what did we do there and what did the doing in turn do to us? I didn’t expect the film to answer those questions, I expected it to address those questions.”