Academy-award winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is clever, committed and concerned, and in his film “Fahrenheit 9/11” he employs the elements of documentary filmmaking—expert interviews, location shooting, archival footage, and witty on-camera antics—to create an unconventional cinematic experience. His movie provokes laughter and tears and leaves viewers hungry for political satire and genuine civic discourse. His film is not at all like Ken Burns’s seven-part, documentary recounting of the Civil War, but rather it is a film created to offer an unapologetic challenge to the character, qualifications and ability of President George W. Bush. It also turns out to be an indictment of American journalism for many of the stories the mainstream press failed to examine.
With his periodic signature-interludes of comedic relief, Moore methodically and selectively works to build his case:
- He returns to the 2000 election and Florida’s disenfranchisement of minority voters and the failure to convince one U.S. Senator to join a formal Congressional Black Caucus objection to voting irregularities in that state.
- He jabs at the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court and questions the Bush family’s financial connections to Saudi oil interests and the family of Osama bin Laden.
- He revisits the horror of 9/11 and families that were destroyed. Moore questions whether members of the bin Laden family should have been allowed to leave the United States without first being interrogated by the FBI.
- He discloses that when George W. Bush was governor of Texas he hosted representatives of the Taliban, who were known to be harboring Osama bin Laden. While in Texas, the Taliban connected with U.S. corporate interests who would eventually secure a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan after one of their consultants was anointed President.
- He demonstrates why Americans have reason to question the effectiveness of homeland security and suggests that the government has manipulated our fear of terror and made us more accepting of military campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq.
- He reminds us that it is often the poor with fewer options at home who pay the ultimate price in wars abroad and sears into our memory the aching, black hole of a mother’s grief.
Grief is also a thread in a lesser-known documentary film—“Control Room”—directed by Jehane Noujaim. Noujaim is a young filmmaker who gives her audience a rare behind-the-scenes look at the Arab satellite news channel, Al Jazeera, and its coverage in the days immediately preceding, during and after the war in Iraq. She shows the horrifying TV images of Iraq being pummeled by coalition bombs and its citizens killed, wounded, detained, cuffed and in search of loved ones buried by rubble. She also reveals the graphic and piercing close-ups of bleeding and disfigured children and dead, twisted bodies of American POW’s and the charred torsos of American contractors hung and dragged by an angry, screaming mob through the streets. Unlike American television news coverage, the selected Al Jazeera soundbites of angry relatives and grieving loved ones, which are translated for the moviegoer, might give “proof” to the rest of the Arab world that the Americans in Iraq are more invaders than liberators.
Located in Doha, Qatar, about 700 miles from Baghdad but not far from the coalition’s Central Command, or Centcom, Al Jazeera—which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls “Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece”—has been a dominant and controversial media voice in the Arab world since 1996. A senior producer says its mission is to inform, educate, stimulate free debate, and shakeup the rigid societies of the region. For filmmaker Noujaim, whose mother is American, father is Egyptian, and has spent her life traveling between both cultures, the news agency opens its doors and gives her access to its reporters, producers and camera crews, who are willing to admit their pro-Arab bias and skepticism of U.S. motives for making war and the coalition’s management and distribution of information about the war. She consistently shows the staff as professionals and as real people, especially when a colleague of theirs falls.
Relegated to art cinemas, “Control Room,” is superficial, uncritical and sheds little light on the news agency, its journalistic standards, or Iraqi news coverage. Here is a sampling of what we don’t learn from the film:
- We do not learn very much about who owns Al Jazeera and what special interests they serve, if any.
- We hear no explanation of why it televises unedited tapes from Osama bin Laden or gives a video stage to the demands of masked terrorists parading their hostages.
- While viewers glimpse dispatches and never-before-seen video broadcast during the war in Iraq, they are given no sense of the impact those reports and images had on Al Jazeera’s roughly 40 million Arab viewers.
- We are given no way to know how this supposedly “independent” news channel covered Iraq, Saddam Hussein or his torture of political prisoners before the war.
By the film’s end, no evidence has been shown to enable us to know whether Al Jazeera is capable of providing its audience with responsible news that is comprehensive, fair and accurate. Yet in watching the documentary, one is troubled by the same-day “accidental” bombing deaths of three different Arab journalists by American warplanes. These killings come after a series of critical public comments by President Bush and Rumsfeld that are heard in the film. One is left not knowing whether these deaths were a coincidence or an example of premeditated precision bombing. Viewers see excerpts from a press conference to explain “the facts” and offer the “official” response from Central Command and watch the last video of the slain Al Jazeera correspondent and listen to a prerecorded plea from his widow, but the film ends without them knowing if Al Jazeera or the filmmaker investigated the tragedies further or pressed the U.S. military for more answers.
In his book, “Doing Documentary Work,” Robert Coles defines “documentary” by tracing the noun “document” back to its Latin root, docere, to teach. In its original intent, the word described something that offered clues, proof or evidence. “Fahrenheit 9/11” and, to some extent, “Control Room,” do this. But do these films do what documentaries have traditionally done—enlighten viewers, search for understanding, or challenge myths? Does it matter that journalists have criticized “Fahrenheit 9/11” for manipulating words and images in unfair ways to convey its strong point of view? Or that “Control Room” is a sympathetic portrayal of a controversial news organization that raises more questions than it answers?
Both films do succeed in awakening interest in these topics. And at a time when so much “noise” arrives over the airwaves, cable and Internet masquerading as journalism, should it still bother journalists how evidence is gathered, facts are presented, and a story is reported? More than ever, it should. And even though there is sloppiness evident in some aspects of how the films’ facts were collected, assembled and conveyed, when journalists view these documentaries surely they must ask themselves why they failed to connect some of these same dots. Did they do all they could to uncover the “truth” about the 2000 election in Florida? Have they delved deeply enough into issues surrounding the nation’s war on terror and its homeland security? Have they found ways to report and convey information about the complicated and seemingly intractable political relationships of the Middle East and Central Asia to readers and viewers? What about their coverage of the interwoven business and political interests that drive U.S. foreign policy? And the fundraising that goes on by presidential candidates?
What often separates journalist from documentary filmmaker is the powerful, purposeful and persuasive use of emotion by people like Michael Moore. Journalists, by and large, don’t travel in such emotion-laden territory, but instead must rely on their presentation of the evidence to present a compelling case for both interest and response.
These documentaries—by touching on aspects of journalism and provoking questions about the role “facts” should play in such films—have served as a valuable reminder to journalists of the popular interest these topics still hold for Americans. Perhaps Moore’s film—with its ability to attract a broad audience to its story—will provoke journalists to turn their skills in the direction of deeper and more sustained coverage of these issues.
Rose Economou, a 1981 Nieman Fellow, is the president of With Heart Productions and a full-time faculty member of the department of journalism at Columbia College in Chicago. She is a former producer for CBS News and a seven-time Emmy Award winner, a four-time Chicago International Film Festival award winner, and a duPont-Columbia Award winner.