But… in the real world, real blood is shed. That’s where the crush of this year’s nonfiction films comes in. Politics have always been the province of documentary-makers, but the recorded view of the world we’re in is uncommonly serious-minded in 2006. In the real world, people die. Every day. Soldiers are at risk around the globe. And, as Al Gore suggests in “An Inconvenient Truth,” the effects of global warming might just kill us all, and we have only ten years to prevent it.
There’s psychological damage to go ‘round, but the war that television and politics don’t want to call into question is front-and-center in documentaries. Germany’s fact-based entry for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award is called “The Blood of Others,” and to paraphrase an old MGM slogan, we’re shown “all the tears in heaven.”
Documentaries this year were about the real world, dispatches freighted with blood and ethical disenchantment. Oliver Stone, whose films veer toward controversial perspectives, made, of all things, an uplifting 9/11 fiction film, “World Trade Center,” but at London’s National Film Theater this week, he considers the world to be more complex than studio films can handle, and that docs have, for several reasons, taken the lead. Stone’s newest rumblings are about investigating the role of countries other than Iraq in American policy. “For me the answer lies in the interim step, in Afghanistan. I think there’s a lot of light to be shed on the nature of that war, how it came about militarily and politically, and also the nature of the war with Pakistan, India and Iran. It’s a great subject matter. It leads to Iraq … and there are already many movies about Iraq in terms of the Internet and documentaries—in a sense, it’s been usurped by television, as 9/11 was, to a certain degree.”
Documentaries can work on a smaller scale even with larger subjects. Focus Features made a nominal theatrical release for Patricia Foulkrod’s brief, deeply infuriating “The Ground Truth,” about the government’s systemic abandonment of soldiers after their return to civilian life from active duty. The release highlighted a DVD release a few weeks later, around Veterans’ Day, encouraging viewing parties by taking a page from the distribution model launched by producer-director Robert Greenwald with agit-docs like “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” “The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress” and “Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price,” digging at the social costs beneath that conglomerate’s marketing catastrophes and hubris.
Fifteen documentaries made the Oscar shortlist, and four comprise kaleidoscopic views of literal violence of war and tragic sudden death, including “The Ground Truth,” the tripartite look at Iraqis, “Iraq in Fragments,” a look at a Sunni doctor running for office in 2005, “My Country, My Country” and the shot-by-soldiers “The War Tapes.” They’re all essential and essentially dispiriting: these bold snapshots are but scraps of a greater, bloodier, hidden truth. War’s collateral damage is examined in Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s “Shut Up & Sing,” which observes the transformation of the Dixie Chicks as musicians (and citizens) after their insult to the President “in a time of war.” They come out stronger, but the more worrisome violence is in movies about religious influence, from Stanley Nelson’s vivid “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple,” as much about the death of 1960s utopianism as death by Kool-Aid; American Talibans inculcating fundamentalist children in “Jesus Camp” (including a shrill, squirrelly cameo by the now-defrocked, gay-bashing, closeted-homosexual minister Ted Haggard) and Amy Berg’s devastating “Deliver Us From Evil,” which uses one convicted pedophile priest as a prism to examine the historical patterns of child sexual assault by clergy.
And for your Christmas viewing pleasure, a pair of competing poli-docs open: Siskel has local filmmaker James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s “… And So Goes the Nation,” a look at the “reptilian” level of the 2004 Presidential battles in Ohio, and the Oscar-shortlisted “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” depicting a pitched battle for a Missouri U.S. Representative’s race. (Ray Pride)
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.