December 1, 2009

What's the point of the "awareness" documentary?

Yesterday, my boyfriend asked me if I was interested in seeing the documentary Collapse with him, which according to IMDb is "a portrait of radical thinker Michael Ruppert [who] explores his apocalyptic vision of the future, spanning the crises in economics, energy, environment and more." I declined, because, well, what's the point?

I have always had a vague problem with "crisis" documentaries that I have never really been able to put into words. I could finally crystallize my feelings after seeing the excellent The Yes Men Fix the World. The film follows the Yes Men, two men who expose hypocrisy and stupidity in corporations and the government through elaborate pranks. Think Michael Moore meets Borat. In addition to causing a stir, though, the pranks have a purpose - for instance, one of them poses as a representative of the New Orleans government and promises to reopen a public housing area, thinking the real government will be too embarassed not to follow up on it. It doesn't actually work, but they get a lot further than you'd think. Most amazingly, though, it had a hopeful ending. They pass out a fake issue of the New York Times that has optimistic headlines like "College is made free for everyone" and "war in Iraq ends" and show people reacting positively to it, and end on the basic message that if two guys can get as far as they did, anyone is truly capable of making a change.

That was it. That was why Michael Moore's films had always left a sour taste in my mouth. It wasn't because of the subject matter - the Yes Men tackled subjects like a city in India left ravaged by the effects of a chemical disaster - but that the message seemed to be "this sucks and there is nothing anyone can do to fix it." Particularly in Roger and Me, which ends on an almost snarkily ironic credits sequence that features the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Moore doesn't seem concerned with making things better, only informing people that things are terrible. And this begs the question: what's the value of just plain awareness?

I'm going to put out the bold idea that it's not worth very much. The idea is that from awareness will come action, but at least from personal experience I never find that it works that way. Moore's films (I'm just using him as an example, there are obviously others) are so depressing that they become paralyzing. You walk out of the theater feeling too bad to do anything. Usually the only thing borne from that kind of "awareness" is cocktail-party banter. "Say, did you know that the town of Flint, Michigan is falling apart at the seams? Simply dreadful! Would you like another martini?" I experienced a fundamentally different phenomenon with The Yes Men, however. By staying positive and particularly ending a positive note, the film galvanized and energized me instead of draining me. I wanted to do something. (I didn't, because I suck, but this was closer than I had gotten before.)

The other problem is that is often's unclear what viewers CAN do to make a difference. I learned in a psychology class that contrary to popular belief, human beings often don't engage in helping behavior not because they don't want to or they're heartless, but because they simply don't know how. They see a situation and keep walking because they genuinely don't know what to do and how to contribute. Thus, I think these kinds of documentaries could benefit substantially from a screen at the end that says something like "We have started a fund for the people you see in this film, go to blablabla.com to learn more and donate" or maybe have people with collection jars outside the theater. There's nothing wrong with guiding people and giving them a little push. It can be hard to come away from a film of that sort and immediately formulate a way to connect yourself to the cause.

Finally, an inherent problem with the "just awareness" movie is that it costs money to make. Maybe a lot of money - obviously, not an Avatar-type budget but still thousands of dollars. If this movie is not going to motivate people to help, wouldn't the money be better spent helping the cause yourself? Returning to Roger and Me, the budget on that film was an estimated $160,000. Michael Moore himself said the film was a failure because it didn't cause anyone to jump to the aid of Flint. Well, Michael, maybe that money would have been better spent on the citizens of Flint - saving families from eviction, opening a public help center, something. It could have done a lot of good. Did he think a bunch of eccentric billionaires would see it and spill open their wallets? Furthermore, Moore's stunts - asking senators if they'd send their children to Iraq, trying to track down the CEO of General Motors - don't really accomplish anything. He could have led by example, perhaps - use half the money to help the town and the other half to document it.

I want to be wrong about this. If you have stories of yourself or people you know seeing depressing crisis documentaries that motivated them to open hospitals in Africa or even shell out some cash, please tell me. But as far as I can tell, the "awareness" model should be reevaluted and those filmmakers should take a cue from the Yes Men.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Kiip said...

Thanks Julie your article was very insightful and helpful. I am a documentary filmmaker who focuses on issues such as human rights, gender rights, global/cultural & eco "awareness" and you make a very valid point.
People can potentially be really turned off by documentaries that present BIG problems or issues with little or no solutions to offer. Who wants to pay to be depressed... I get it!
The awareness model does need to be reevaluated.