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December 17, 2008


Messengers on Missions

Documentaries are now equated with activism, sending messages, and bringing causes to the public’s attention (advocacy docs), as if somehow “the public” is too ignorant to know about the topic (global warming, environmental destruction, racism, etc etc etc) without the assistance of the Vanguard Documentary or Programmer Hero delivering it to them. Am I wrong? Just take a look at the number of grants that exist for documentary filmmakers (in the US). Sundance provides grants to activist films; Gucci Grant does the same; ITVS and many more do it too. Take Trouble the Water - go to their webpage and what do you see? Advocacy, telling you what to do, how to get involved, take Action, Green for All, Social Justice, Witness, blah blah blah. And Trouble the Water isn’t the only doc that does it. IOUSA, Made in LA, The Garden. These kinds of films have both subtle and strong political messages so the audience can leave the theater with a changed heart and mind that conforms to a particular political ideology steeped in messages instead narratives grounded in real stories. These grants fund ideologies and activism, not stories. By contrast, Man on Wire is an excellent example of story trumping message.

The true tragedy here is that Full Frame, Sundance, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, Hot Docs have all manufactured in the public conciousness a strong link of equating documentaries with activism and cause based agendas. One only has to gain an understanding of programmers’ ideologies to understand where the political taste is devoted; is it conscious or unsconcious? Is it from a superior, taken for granted, condscending, and entitled dogma? I think so.

My number one personal interest when watching a narrative is how much of the actual story comes from the characters’ motivations instead of the hands of the editor, or the political agenda of the director. I don’t evaluate the entire film based on that question, but when any form of activism (left, center, right) or agenda begins to replace literature and story, then I find myself walking away from the film such as Trouble the Water. Trouble the Water leads its characters with heavy handed questions (which are edited out), sloppy cuts to the French Quarter, dogmatic visuals, and so many more smaller tell-tale signs of telling the directors the "answers" they want to hear.

Trouble the Water substitutes and transfers the directors' attitudes and personal political ideologies in place of the actual characters who live in those regions in hopes of connecting to people who share the directors' ideologies. The trouble with the film is that it simply uses the characters for the directors' agenda. Trouble the Water is the Biggest Disaster the Year that perfectly mimics the larger structural problem of equating films with messages. “What’s your message?” Who cares. “What’s the story!” Here is one exception to the rule, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Yes, it’s time to kill the messenger so the story can live. Films aren't meant as messages; they're meant as stories.

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