Will the summer of 2004 be remembered as the season of Hot Political Docs?
First came "Control Room," Jehane Noujaim's gripping film about the Arab satellite news service al-Jazeera, and then this past week Michael Moore's hotly anticipated "Fahrenheit 9/11" opened, as well as the lesser-known but just as incendiary "The Hunting of the President," about the investigations of President Clinton.
Over the summer, wonks, activists and garden-variety political junkies will have lots to look forward to. "Orwell Rolls in His Grave," a methodical critique of media consolidation; "The Corporation," an economic, political and social history of the concept of the corporation; "The Yes Men," about a team of satirical anti-corporate performance artists; "Uncovered," about the run-up to the Iraq war; and "Unconstitutional," about civil liberties in post-9/11 America, will all hit screens before the fall.
Maybe it's just the time of year, or maybe it's the time of Man. But suddenly it seems that film, video and digital media have become the 21st-century version of the pamphlets, broadsides and theses that were used to rouse rabble from the time of Martin Luther through Thomas Paine to Karl Marx.
Historically, political documentaries have been made too far after the fact to shape public opinion about a particular issue. It's only recently that technology has allowed filmmakers to comment on events while they're still fresh, or even as they're happening. As the writer Joe Conason points out in both the book and film versions of "The Hunting of the President," opponents of Bill Clinton may have paved the way for filmmaker-as- pamphleteer with such videos as "The Clinton Chronicles," which helped fuel anti-Clinton furor and were distributed by televangelists in the 1990s.
The Left caught up in 2002 when filmmaker Robert Greenwald produced "Unprecedented," an account of the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Thinking creatively, Greenwald distributed the film himself, organizing screenings through the NAACP, the Nation Institute and People for the American Way. Based on awareness created in those screenings, "Unprecedented" sold several thousand videos and DVDs and went on to be shown on the Sundance Channel.
Last year, when he made "Uncovered," Greenwald elaborated on the same model. He launched the film with a screening at the think tank Center for American Progress and on the same day made the DVDs available on the Web sites of MoveOn, AlterNet, Buzzflash and the Nation. The film was also seen at 2,800 house parties organized by 2,800 MoveOn members.
"In three days we sold 30,000 copies," Greenwald says, "and raised over a million dollars for anti-Bush ads." (The film has since sold more than 100,000 copies.) As satisfying as those results were in the short term, he adds, "for the long term, the most important thing is that we created an alternative distribution model that in variations can be used in the future."
Because it's an election year, and because like-minded filmmakers are eager to capitalize on the buzz created by "Fahrenheit 9/11," films that otherwise would have been relegated to the living room will this summer get full theatrical releases. (As of this writing, MoveOn.org had secured commitments from more than 100,000 people to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" on its opening day Friday; tomorrow, Moore will speak via conference call with more than 1,000 house parties across the country.)
But Americans may find that the democratic way has been permanently changed. Instead of being handed petitions or leaflets on their downtown street corners, they're likely to be handed a pocket-size disc sheathed in a thin plastic case.
Whether any of those movies prove to be the cinematic equivalent of "Common Sense" remains to be seen.