Conversation Starters

These days, it seems like every filmmaker is on a mission. But there's a big difference between passionately expressing one's beliefs and convincing viewers to get behind a cause. Most audiences don't base their film and television choices on the issues with which they need to get involved.
June 1, 2008

These days, it seems like every filmmaker is on a mission. But there’s a big difference between passionately expressing one’s beliefs and convincing viewers to get behind a cause. Most audiences don’t base their film and television choices on the issues with which they need to get involved.

While some films succeed in creating a movement (like An Inconvenient Truth), or in starting discussion (like Sicko), quite often the audience response has much to do with the names linked to the films. So, the question remains: are audiences just there to be entertained, or can filmmakers aspire to motivate their constituencies?

Docs and armchair activists
HBO has presented audiences with docs on an array of issues, from the Iraq war to autism. While those films haven’t begun a movement, that hasn’t necessarily been the goal. HBO aims for engagement and – if it gets lucky – conversation.

Nancy Abraham, VP of HBO’s documentary programming, says being a general entertainment channel helps grab diverse audiences. ‘A lot of times people find our documentaries who wouldn’t necessarily be seeking them out, and get sucked into them. That’s always a great thing for us, to not be preaching to the converted,’ she says.

It’s a realistic goal, given that most viewers are only ever likely to become ‘armchair activists’ versus letter-writing, government-lobbying advocates.

Thom Powers, doc programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, doesn’t think viewers will give up their armchairs anytime soon. ‘I think when it comes to activism, unfortunately what you see is that going to see a film is an easy way of feeling engaged, as opposed to actually going to a demonstration, joining an organization, or writing your politician,’ he says.

There certainly are exceptions, and HBO has backed some of them. The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, an HBO film produced and directed by Lisa F. Jackson, brought to light the tragedy going on in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for the last 10 years, where thousands of women have been raped as a product of warfare. The film has been screened for parliamentarians and policy-makers at the House of Commons in London and in the us Senate for the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.

The mood of audiences
Remarkably little gets solved by parliamentarians and policy-makers until their feet are held to the fire, however. Information is one thing, motivation is another.

Pat Aufderheide, professor and director of the Center for Social Media at the American University in Washington, DC, believes the upcoming election puts Americans in a different frame of mind, and introduces the jeopardy of accountability to otherwise deaf politicians. ‘We are at the end of an election cycle’ in the US, she observes. ‘It’s a time of accountability, when people are saying ‘How did that work out?”

Aufderheide also believes other factors, like the fallout from 9/11 and Bush’s plummeting approval ratings, have opened audiences to dissident voices. This makes it a lot easier to make and watch films critical of geopolitics, economics and global warming, she notes.

That acceptance on the part of the audience is reflected in what broadcasters put on air. Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight is just one of many political films BBC’s ‘Storyville’ has aired because of audience demand, says ‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser. ‘If this were a time that people weren’t interested in politics, they wouldn’t want to make political films so we wouldn’t show any. But they are interested,’ he says.

Tough sell
Having an audience that is, in theory at least, receptive to tough messages is one thing. Getting people to sit through a heavy doc on a Friday night is another.

Despite the climate, Fraser says people are still not interested in being bombarded with messages. ‘They don’t want to be nagged,’ he says. ‘I think in a way, the Gore film was an exception to the rule because it was Gore, and everybody knew about Gore. That was a really good lecture. I thought it was a very successful film.’

But, since not everyone can be Al Gore, docmakers have to find success using other methods to convey their message. Some have turned the process inward, demonstrating greater issues as they relate to themselves personally. In some instances, a huge, unwieldy issue can become an intensely intimate story, as in Jackson’s Silence, where the filmmaker used the story of her own rape to connect with Congolese victims. Morgan Spurlock used a different tactic, using lots of humor and his own health to demonstrate the impact of fast food in Super Size Me.

But no message and presentation is a guaranteed winner, says HBO’s Abraham. ‘Not every film that sets out to be an advocacy film ends up being a great documentary,’ she says.

Rallying an audience for Iraq
Critics are heaping praise on the rash of Iraq films, both non-fiction and fiction, but audience numbers have been anything but inspiring. Despite the immediacy of the issue, Aufderheide doesn’t believe people are clamoring for these films. ‘It’s not clear to me that audiences are hungry for this stuff. I don’t think any Iraq film has done particularly well at the box office, even Iraq in Fragments, which won God knows how many awards,’ she says.

A well-documented case in point was Fahrenheit 9/11. With a worldwide total gross of US$222 million, Michael Moore’s depiction of George W. Bush’s reaction to 9/11 and the subsequent us invasion of Iraq was a financial success, but did little to turn the tide of history.

And as the Iraq war continues, the films will keep coming. Says Powers, ‘If you look at a collection of films you can start to get a very good education about Iraq. You’d have to look at Occupation Dreamland and My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments, No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side to begin to get an understanding of the complexities involved.’

Perhaps the subject is just too big to fit into one film that audiences can rally around, as they did with An Inconvenient Truth. Or maybe it’s because Iraq war films have yet to find a rallying figure like Gore, says Aufderheide. ‘I think all the documentaries I’ve seen on the Iraq war are still solitary efforts. Al Gore has the good fortune of being a world leader and rich. That’s just not Alex Gibney’s situation,’ she says.

Many great Iraq films have been made, but the pivotal one hasn’t materialized yet. Aufderheide believes it’s a problem of shortness of vision. ‘There were a lot of films about the Vietnam War that circulated widely at the time. It was hard to see the effectiveness of any of those films then. But if you look back now, there were really big films like The Selling of the Pentagon, Hearts and Minds and The Sad Song of Yellow Skin. Most of those movies didn’t have a high visibility, but they did have participation in shaping the conversation,’ she says.

Perhaps that’s the best reaction a filmmaker can hope for with a contemporary audience.

Besides the ability to inform an audience, Powers believes in the cathartic element of docs. ‘To go see Michael Moore’s Sicko is partly to be informed, but it’s partly to hear someone express rage about a system you might have felt your own rage about. It feels good to experience that,’ he says.

HBO’s Abraham agrees. ‘Some documentaries serve that purpose, definitely. Collective rage? I suppose. Not all the films take the style of Michael Moore’s, but if there’s a film that gets out an opinion that may not be in the mainstream media, then a lot of people are going to embrace that.’

Sometimes films are embraced by so many that they create a tipping point, says Aufderheide. This has already happened with An Inconvenient Truth, which went from film to global movement. ‘There’d been this false debate about ‘Oh, is there global warming?” she says. The movie addressed that debate by illustrating evidence that it does exist, she says. ‘Gore’s now working on a worldwide social marketing campaign on the need to have political action around global warming.’

No film since then has tipped a large-scale movement, but the importance of current documentaries to audiences can’t be underestimated, though it’s almost impossible to measure. ‘You’re looking at a phenomenon that is relatively small, both economically and in terms of audience, but it’s hugely important in terms of shaping opinion because the people who watch documentaries are opinion-makers, they repeat issues and they are nodes on a conversation network,’ says Aufderheide.

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