For anyone who regularly attends the cinema it is difficult to ignore the sharp rise in the number of feature length documentaries making it to movie theatres. An overwhelming number of these documentaries have a social agenda and are concerned with critiquing the status quo, whether it is in relation to corporate power or the dominance of right-wing administrations and conservative ideals. Michael Moore is the most infamous proponent of this trend with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet, other notable examples include The Corporation, Super Size Me, McLibel, Outfoxed, Control Room, Darwin’s Nightmare and, in Australia, Time to Go John and Letters to Ali. These films would not be appearing on screens in Australia and elsewhere if there were not a sizeable audience willing to pay the price of a ticket. Fahrenheit 9/11 represents the biggest box office success of any documentary in history. In seeking some way of accounting for the public’s re-discovery of the documentary, much is owed to the way these filmmakers appreciate the intractable relationship between politics and the passion of emotions.
This preoccupation with social issues in documentary, particularly in relation to a class consciousness, can be traced to the beginnings of the form. Two Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisentstein, are the most influential forebears to have sought out the relationship between a radical politic and the film camera’s potential to render social reality. American filmmakers similarly saw the potential of the medium in the 1930s with the Workers Film and Photo League’s controversial documentaries highlighting the dire effects of the Depression. Many more were to follow in their footsteps, not least of which was Australia’s Realist Film Unit in the late 40s and early 50s.
This preoccupation with social justice issues in documentary has led to a thread of filmmaking that has been called a number of things, including the ‘committed film’ or ‘social realism’. This thread represents a lineage quite different to that of the ‘balanced’ reportage of television journalism. These distinctions are lost, however, in the general consumption of the non- fiction genre. The category of documentary, in many ways, is often sidelined as the dullest of cinema genres. Carrying with it the weight of association, much documentary is seen to be the antithesis of entertainment: educational, dry, informative and concerned with the everyday rather than the fantastical.
Yet, the point in making this distinction is to suggest that far from being devoid of all things passionate, the political filmmaking we are seeing more and more frequently on our screens belongs to a lineage of cinema that is devoted to the emotional. They are motivated by what might be roused at the deepest levels of desire.Complicating their reputation of sobering seriousness, the politically oriented documentary is all about rallying sentiment and compelling us to act on it, to do something about the social world in which we live where these injustices are perpetrated. They seek to move us to the extent that we will take a stand against, for example, the expansive power of corporations, against the Bush administration or against media outlets that serve the interests of the global or national elite. These appeals have a different tone to those that asked a 1920s and 30s audience to recognise the value and glory of the worker or to act on the need for adequate housing in Depression times. The emotional work done by films in the contemporary era operates in tandem with our current historical moment and the emotions specific to it.
These documentaries and their creators tap into a generation when what the Left shares, as a political community, is less a common set of guiding principles and more a sense of anguish at what it has lost through the deceits enacted by the Right. No doubt, this is a generation that does not necessarily remember the movement’s previous losses, such as the disillusionment after Stalin. In the face of contemporary popular support for neo-liberalism and conservative (or Third Way) administrations, many of the documentary narratives making it to our screens are overwhelmingly concerned with mourning the absence of what are perceived as particular kinds of good objects in the public sphere. They tell their audience that something should have been different, should have been better and truer.
If we have progressed to a time when those elected to govern in the interests of all lie to maintain the privilege of the few (Fahrenheit 9/11, Time to Go John, Control Room) and industries that should serve us as consumers exhibit a total lack of care and social concern (The Corporation, Super Size Me, McLibel, Outfoxed, Darwin’s Nightmare), this is no kind of progress. Not only is a radical social vision off the agenda, liberal democracy is disappearing over the horizon as well.
This may be a naive sentiment, but it highlights the way these films offer an interesting perspective from which to understand the very nature of political life. This arena, much like documentary, is distinguished through its association with the rational, the reasoned and the logical. The political is almost defined through its opposition to the realm of the personal and emotional. In a recent book, On the Political, scholar Chantal Mouffe calls for a re-evaluation of the political realm. She believes that political theory is unable to grasp the import of the ‘passions’ as a force in the field of politics and thus cannot adequately account for them and the conflicts they engender. We do not simply vote, she observes, to protect our interests, but there is also an emotional or affective dimension that ties us to a community or a collective identity. These identities are wrapped up in fantasies of who we are and what we believe in. It is these fantasies and, indeed, desires that cause us to act in the name of social justice or to enact prejudices.
Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and the other documentary filmmakers recognise both the power of the documentary narrative and the role of the emotions in politics. This could be because they themselves identify with a political community and their own filmmaking projects are motivated by a desire to confront the anger, grief and frustration that characterises these attachments. But it is not only the painful emotions that come into focus here. Clearly, documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me also function through a playful sense of irony and humour. They employ tactics that share much with contemporary forms of activism that utilise strategic theatricality to get their point across rather than traditional protest. This is almost a signature of Michael Moore’s style and is most evident in his television series The Awful Truth.
Wendy Brown is another political philosopher who recognises the importance of the emotional–political psyche. In one essay in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, she proceeds through a number of analytical moves that traverse Socrates and Sigmund Freud to arrive at a theory of civic love. Brown argues that the practice of dissent, on the one hand, and unquestioning patriotism on the other, are both fuelled by love and idealisation. The critic idealises what the polity could be in a utopian future; the patriot idealises the present nation-state while possibly also disavowing state violence, such as war. To this end, we can understand these filmmakers and much of their audience to be compelled by a love for democratic traditions. It may be an imaginative leap, but it follows then that the dishevelled and often annoying figure of Michael Moore is irrevocably coupled with an overriding love and passion.
Where does this grief, pain, joy and love leave us? Is this a productive site of passion or is it only an anguished re-stating of, and therefore attachment to, what is absent and defunct? In terms of a way forward for the Left, rather than a vision for the future or a way to formulate one, these documentaries focus on what is wrong. They attempt to influence our desires by showing us how we are being deceived, often in the name of liberal democracy. Even the ones that offer hope, such as McLibel’s David and Goliath story that achieves a legal victory against the McDonald’s empire, are about an astounding exception rather than a momentum for change. And after all, despite the massive reach of Fahrenheit 9/11, Bush was re-elected and little has changed. While some mourn lost justice, many are indifferent. Nevertheless, while the old Left is struggling to adjust to the new force of neo-liberalism, perhaps what is heralded by the popularity of these documentaries is a desire to grasp anew the character of the age. It could be that these films will successfully muster political communities through a different generation’s passionate indignations.
Belinda Smaill is a lecturer in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash University. She teaches in the areas of Film and Television Studies.