Film is an incredibly powerful medium. It informs public opinion, and helps us to preserve pieces of our history. Some of the most influential writings on the potential social utility of non-fiction filmmaking were produced by Scottish born Canadian filmmaker John Grierson, who thought of film as a means of empowering the powerless, and calling attention to social ills. Grierson’s influence is still resonant, as evidenced by this collection of films that seek to enrich public discourses through their films.
Here are the top five thought-provoking documentaries from recent years.
- Sicko: (2007)
Michael Moore is no stranger to controversy. He’s outraged and inspired many with sensational documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 takes a controversial dive into the medical world where he challenges various health insurance companies in the United States and the lives they have refused to save. Moore travels to Canada, the U.K., France and Cuba to portray the universal health care processes that have granted the denizens of these countries with longer life expectancy rates than people living in the United States. He interviews individuals who have been mistreated, injured or almost died because they could not get insurance, or their insurance did not cover a procedure. Moore sails into Cuba with a variety of sick individuals, including various 9/11 volunteers, that did not receive the care they needed in the U.S. in order to get them well again. So Moore decides to sail outside of Guantanamo, where political prisoners are entitled to better health care coverage than uninsured citizens. Moore takes a stand and travels through a world where people are dying because they did not have the right piece of paper, and as he physically shows the problems in America and differences in other countries, he asks the country one simple question, “who are we?”
- Standard Operating Procedure: (2008)
In a country where military soldiers receive a stamp of honor just for putting on a uniform, Errol Morris shows another side that not many people see. Morris dives into a cruel, sadistic occurrence delivered by the hands of U.S. soldiers. Pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison are presented of various Iraqi prisoners being brutally dehumanized by military members. These soldiers proceed to “goof off” in front of the camera while going about their cruel treatment of the prisoners, all the while claiming it to be “standard operating procedure.” Morris conducts interviews with the soldiers that cause quite a stir as one respondent, with dead and unfeeling eyes, does not repent for her actions. Others seem rational and likeable, as if they are witnesses rather than defendants. It is hard to know who is the bad guy, but is this reaction because they have numbed themselves to the situation, or because they simply do not care? Morris portrays a highly gruesome situation, but one that needs to be seen. When soldiers of the country begin to conduct actions similar to Saddam Hussein, should they be welcomed home with a pat on the back and a metal of honor?
- Pump: (2014)
Pump is an eye-opening demonstration of America’s addiction to oil. It dives into the interesting concept of oil use in the U.S. While America holds less than five percent of the population, it uses 20 percent of the world’s oil supply. The documentary continues to show how this addiction has played its part in wars, recessions and pollution. Because the country takes so much oil, the environment pays the price. Fracking technology is presented on screen, a process which pulls oil from the dense shale rock, at a high price to the environment. The film goes on the present the problem that only three percent of gas stations offer alternative fuel, allowing few options to get away from consuming such a large amount of oil. Franchises, government officials and manufacturers lay unnecessary obstacles in individual’s paths when trying to make small strides towards improvement. Money is a powerful force, and when certain businesses make money from an oil addiction, they will push it as far as they can. And while companies like Alberta Energy Providers are doing a lot to spur interest in alternative energy, when it comes down to curing energy consumers of their petrol addiction, real change has to start at the pump.
- Food Inc.: (2008)
When eating meat, it is nice to think about the animal it came from growing up on a farm, happy and healthy until its last days, but Robert Kenner (with the help of producer/journalist Eric Schlosser) works to portray the truth. Food businesses only care about one thing, and that is business. Ever since the rapid expansion of the fast food industry, meat is in higher demand, and most agricultural producers the world over are pandering towards gargantuan corporations like McDonald’s. In order to produce more meat, animals are kept in cruel conditions. Cows live side by side in corrals that are kept in the dark where they cannot even turn around. They produce milk in those closed quarters until they are slaughtered. Chickens are kept in tiny cages where they cannot move around and produce eggs until it kills them. With animals swimming in their own waste, it seems that there should be a problem. But people prefer to remain blind to that problem, but Kenner works to prove that that excuse is not good enough. The human population is getting fatter, why? Because animals are being trained to eat government-subsidized corn rather than their natural food, grass and grains.. Kenner portrays the problem within the food industry and how it has resulted in a diet that was never meant to be consumed through the torture of animals. Not only is the industry killing animals, it is also killing humans.
- McLibel: (2005)
The film offers documentation of one of the largest corporate PR disasters in history. McDonald’s used the U.K. libel laws in order to suppress criticism, which resulted in several media organizations crumbling into apologies. Because of their denial of any criticism, McDonald’s sued gardener Helen Steel and postman Dave Morris, who were working to present the truth about McDonald’s food. Instead of backing down, the Steel and Morris represented themselves and fought back against the corporation. They brought everything they could against the fast food restaurant, from animal cruelty, environmental damage, to inequitable treatment of employees. This film tells the story of two people who stood for their opinions and refused to say sorry, even to Ronald McDonald. It is not just about hamburgers, fries or calories, but rather the right of freedom of speech, and the choice to speak no matter how big the enemy.
In order to truly make a difference, people need to see the truth, and documentaries are a step in the right direction.
Black Sea is a gripping submarine thriller that covers themes of desperation and greed. The film is held together by a strong cast providing frantic on edge performances which are enhanced by the dark and claustrophic setting of the submarine. There is a sense of tragedy as men who have dedicated their lives to their work find they are thrown to the bottom of a scrapheap, and have to resort to desperate measures to get revenge and make a living.
Art history is perhaps one of the most comprehensive encapsulations of world history humanity has at its disposal. The role of religion in society at large, social mores, taboos, inequitable societal structures, social unrest, political scandal…it’s all been documented by artists.
What’s great about the 20th Century is that cinema has played such an enormous role in documenting this era in human history. Some of the most compelling films of all time have dealt, self-reflexively, with the role of media in modern society — films like Citizen Kane, Wag The Dog, Network — it’s an extensive list.
But one film that is notable for showing the potential social utility of ethical journalism is Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1976). The film dramatizes the real-life story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters from the Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate Scandal, and effectively brought about the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The film featured Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the roles of Woodward and Bernstein respectively.
The story begins with a burglary which occurred in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in 1972. Woodward is assigned to report about the incident, and he becomes suspicious when he realizes that many of the men who have been arrested for their involvement in the burglary have some sort of direct affiliation with the CIA. Ultimately, Woodward is partnered with Bernstein to investigate the case further. It’s established early on that Bernstein is the seasoned reporter, who begrudgingly takes the novice Woodward under his wing. While the two were reluctant to work together in the beginning, they end up realizing fairly quickly that they are capable of accomplishing more by working closely in tandem. They trace all of this suspicious activity back to President Richard Nixon, who had orchestrated the burglary, and was trying desperately to cover up a slush fund.
There are several issues that the two reporters come up against: for one thing, much of their information comes from a government whistle-blower who went under the alias “Deep Throat,” which means that the Post editors, apprehensively, allowed Woodward and Bernstein to publish much of their work with zero sources who could be listed publicly. This was extremely risky for Woodward and Bernstein. Had they been taken to court on libel charges, it’s possible that they would not have had the safety net of witnesses and sources who would willingly corroborate their story.
The film shows how a free press is the cornerstone of a democracy. Ideally speaking, journalists perform an essential role in sustaining some modicum of transparency when it comes to governmental actions. The problem, of course, is that in far too many situations, journalists are soft-spined opportunists who protect their own interests rather than digging deep and exposing devious actions to the public — especially when it comes to investigations of shady governmental dealings, or other situations that require challenging an authoritative figure. The film also shows the importance of fact checking, and having internal systems in place to ensure through communication between reporters and editors.
A contemporary reporter like ABC 20/20’s Brian Ross, dubbed “America’s Wrongest Reporter” by some sources, should consider revisiting this film. Ross has made headlines repeatedly in recent years for his gaffes, which include the incident where he publicly accused the wrong man of committing the horrific movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. ABC 20/20 as a news program unto itself has also been scrutinized for inconsistency, and relying upon dubious sources — for instance, they publicly derided the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in 2010, but they frequently rely upon BBB ratings to inform their coverage of other businesses today.
Sadly, these are just some of many recent case studies that show investigative journalism falling short of its primary social function by a wide margin. It hardly helps that digital media has created for a situation where news publications operate on a constant rolling deadline. Things move through the news cycle more quickly now than ever before, which means that expedience commonly takes precedence over accuracy. It’s for this reason that the film still feels resonant, since it covers all of the dull, often confusing, minutiae of investigative journalism. And even though opportunism, fear, and general sloppiness do create issues in mainstream media, every once in a great while, a diligent reporter will forfeit self-interest and allow themselves to be vulnerable in the interest of bringing something important to the general public’s attention. All The President’s Men is still the film which makes the most compelling case for the role of journalism in today’s fast paced world.
In the history of Stephen King novels adapted to film, some have fallen short by a wide margin, some have become immensely successful, and others still become relatively obscure over time. Then there are those films like The Shining, which didn’t receive much praise upon its release, but has since gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. One of the major issues for Stephen King fans with The Shining, and indeed, for Stephen King himself, were the philosophical/spiritual incongruities between King and director Stanley Kubrick.
And then you have a film like Christine. While the film is generally not held in the same high regard as a film like The Shining, Christine does succeed in bringing the similarities of two artists’ works into focus the best. Writer Stephen King and director John Carpenter shared some literary and artistic interests that dovetailed nicely in the context of Christine. Drawing on their love of comics, horror, pop culture, and fifties nostalgia, Carpenter and King created a film that reflected the spirit of the 1980s and anticipated some concerns that still resonate today.
The film tells the story of a bully-battered teenage nerd named Arnie (Keith Gordon) who ends up purchasing “Christine” — an old, beat-up 1958 Plymouth from an old man. We come to learn that the car is possessed. It has the power to reconstruct itself, and it’s willing to destroy anyone who comes between her and Arnie.
Both King and Carpenter grew up as big fans of EC horror comics, and that is clearly reflected in Christine. EC comics often featured storylines with ironic twists or slightly political angles drawn from real life. Several of Carpenter’s films, including The Fog, The Thing, and the horror anthology Body Bags were reminiscent of the EC comic style. King of course paid direct tribute to the films with his collaboration with George A. Romero, Creepshow. The most notable point of connection between EC and Christine is the concept of living automata — objects which come to life to wreak havoc among humans.
Some of the EC comics influence also comes from contributor Ray Bradbury. Several of his stories were adapted for the series and King became a big fan of Bradbury’s actual novels and short stories. Another influence of Carpenter’s, though, ended up meshing well with King’s approach to stories. Carpenter admired the films of Howard Hawks and how he integrated natural, lifelike dialogue into his movies. Again, this conversational style allowed the period-specific dialogues from King’s novel to flow relatively smoothly on the big screen.
In the case of Christine, King and Carpenter portrayed some characters who receive ironic paybacks after treating people poorly or just being bad people in general. Also, this comic book sensibility helps the film encourage a willing suspension of disbelief, which is important since the movie is about a jealous, autonomous car with something akin to free will.
Politically, the movie also expresses a sense of concern about technology and how humans will interact with it in the future. While not exactly a Luddite message, it does reflect social concerns about technology and its grip on people that are still relevant today. The film’s plot does, however, question society’s priorities when it comes to material objects, status, and what is “cool” as viewers watch the protagonist undergo a complete transformation. And however silly the notion of a killer car might have seemed to viewers in the eighties, remember that nowadays, corporations are fighting to realize self-controlling automotives, and people are also coming to rely upon fully automated home systems like the Brinks security setups that enable homeowners to synchronize the functionality of their household appliances. That’s right: our appliances are conspiring!
Despite its seemingly far-fetched plot, critics liked the movie. The first part of the movie, in particular, showcased what Carpenter could do with characters when given a seemingly outlandish idea to run with. The movie also plays on visions of teenage life behind the wheel, dating and high school politics. After all these years, though, it might seem slightly dated to some people. But where the film is most successful is not in the superficial narrative about a killer car, but in the meta-narrative about humanity’s struggle to suppress its destructive impulses. It’s not about the evil that dwells inside of the car. It’s about the evil within everyone, even (or especially) the seemingly docile nerd who can never get a date and always has his lunch money stolen.
John Carpenter has created some of the most terrifying movie monsters in the history of cinema, but he’s also managed to make films that are moving emotionally, and he has continually defied what audiences have expected from self-aware genre films. What’s more, he could achieve all of this on a miniscule budget, with casts comprised primarily of unestablished actors. In fact, he helped to establish some performers, including Jamie Lee Curtis.
Mistaken for Strangers was supposed to be a rock documentary about the popular band ‘The National’ as they embarked on their 2010 tour, but it turned out to be something much more original and stirring. Filmed by Tom Bernenger, the younger brother of ‘The National’s’ lead singer Matt Berninger, as he is invited to come on tour with the band and work as a roadie for them, Mistaken for strangers is more a film about sibling rivalry and self discovery than a music documentary. It not only shows the not particularly exciting off stage antics of a rock/indie band, but it shows how brotherly love and patience can be tested by jealousy and being in close proximity to one another.
Lovelace is the story of Linda Lovelace, the woman who starred in the 1972 porn classic Deep Throat, which was one of the first porn films to gain popularity with the mainstream public. Shortly after leaving the porn industry, Linda went on to campaign against the porn industry and become an advocate for women’s rights and Lovelace outlines the reasons why.
Inside Llewyn Davis comes at a time when piracy and the internet are making it harder than ever for musicians to make money out of their music. People are buying music less and less from shops and getting everything online at a cheaper rate. With this and the still recent financial crisis in mind, this film about a struggling musician is a story bound to strike a chord with many people. Llewyn’s efforts to get himself heard has the potential to resonate with any person who has struggled to find work in a changing marketplace.
Bernie is the true story of Assistant Funeral Director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who after confessing to the crime of murdering his friend and employer Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and concealing it for months, received the support of almost the whole town of Carthage, Texas. Their wish for Bernie to be found innocent was so strong that the District Attorney actually had to have the trial moved to another town in order to ensure a fair trial.
Beautiful Creatures is a romantic fantasy film centred around a small town character who falls in love with a mysterious stranger who has supernatural powers. Sound familiar? It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between this and Twilight, as the central story is almost the same, just with the genders being reversed. The supernatural character is the girl, and she is a witch or ‘caster’, rather than a vampire.