Documentary films promise to tell an "untold" story, but is it the full story, asks Daniel Wood of the Christian Science Monitor?
Don't count on it; the days when "documentary" reliably meant "inform the audience" are over. Today, makers of such films feel little or no obligation to heed documentary-film traditions like point-by-point rebuttal or formal reality checks, says Wood.
Instead, they are producing op-ed documentaries, or "docu-ganda," that illustrate only one point-of-view, says Wood:* Docu-ganda made its first commercially successful debut in 1989, when Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" explored the effects of General Motors on Flint, Michigan.But do they feel the need to present more than one side of an issue? The answer is a no. Supporters believe that the idea of presenting one point of view that has to give equal time to another point of view is spurious, making the film boring, says Wood.
* Moore's success, followed by the growth of independent theaters and the development of alternative means of film distribution, such as the Internet and DVD, has led to a groundswell of similar films.
* Directors, for their part, are attracted by the opportunity to get their messages out without having to persuade the media gatekeepers -- a handful of Hollywood studios, cable and TV network brass -- that their movies are worth doing.
* Even though these films foster public discussion, whether via outrage or applause, they risk limiting their audience to those who agree with their premises.
However, all this demands higher media literacy from filmgoers; but the ability to discern what is fact, what is varnish and what is debatable is largely untaught, and viewers are often complacent, says Wood.
The Rise of 'Docu-ganda' Filmmaking
The National Center for Policy Analysis writes about the rise of "docu-ganda" films, movies that are portrayed as "just the facts" filmmaking, but actually have an agenda and make no attempt to carry both sides. In this way, they are like the news media. Both docu-ganda filmmakers and news reporters strive to be thought of as dispassioned observers, and want to be regarded as speaking with the "voice of God."