Watched the news lately? Your local 11 o’clock broadcast, a national cable network, whatever. Watched it? Did you learn more about Paris Hilton’s legal woes and which team made the playoffs than about real issues that impact you as an American, as a citizen of planet Earth, as a human being? Disgusting, isn’t it?
Real journalism in the visual medium has all but disappeared from television in recent years — “comedians” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert more often do the job of speaking truth to power and holding accountable our leaders than anyone calling himself a journalist these days. But accountability and outrage at authority and at the status quo are showing up on film: in theaters, sometimes, but more frequently as direct-to-DVD films sold directly to, well, the angry, the informed, and those who want to be informed.
There’s Maxed Out [buy at Amazon], for one, which played in theaters briefly in limited release earlier this year and arrives on DVD on June 5. Documentarian James D. Scurlock’s antidote to all the upbeat economic news the mainstream media bombards us with — stock market up! corporate earnings up! — is a dispiriting expose of predatory lending scams that mislead even smart, educated people and a credit-card industry that is designed, with full approval of the U.S. government, to work against the ordinary consumer. Flying lower under the radar is In Debt We Trust: America Before the Bubble Bursts [buy at Amazon], a recent release from the progressive Web site/media company Disinformation.com (the ironically named organization fights it, doesn’t disseminate it). Far more muckracking and rebellious than Scurlock, award-winning former ABC News and CNN producer Danny Schechter here casts an even wider net across the sea of instability just barely breaching the surface of the American economy — foreclosures up! bankruptcy “reform” hurts everyone except big business! — to show how at the mercy of major banking corporations are the American middle and lower classes, and how the bottom must inevitably fall out.
Pick a hot topic, and there’s more than one of these “advocacy” or “activist” documentaries you can turn to for more info than Eyewitness News or CNN will ever, ever tell you. The mess of the Middle East? Pierre Rehov’s Suicide Killers [buy at Amazon] just out on DVD, rips the facade of piety off the face of the young Muslim men who strap explosives to their body and shows them for the sexually repressed children they are; fundamentalist Islam takes a beating in the process, of course, but the despair of the middle-of-the-road majority is not ignored, either. Or get the historical context for suicide bombers, from 1970s Iran to 2000s London, in The Cult of the Suicide Bomber [buy at Amazon] another Disinformation.com project, in which former CIA agent Robert Baer (the inspiration for George Clooney’s character in Syriana) gives us straight-up, old-fashioned news reportage: you know, with investigating and details and background and stuff, just like The News used to give us.
Melting icebergs? Who Killed the Electric Car? and The Great Warming. Obesity epidemic? Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation (which isn’t a doc, but almost). Scary Christianity? Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp. Debacle in Iraq? The Ground Truth is the uncensored word from soldiers in the sand; hell, forget the “uncensored,” it’s any word from the guys and gals doing the fighting. And Robert Greenwald has made something of a mini industry out of on-the-cheap, for-the-people muckracking with Uncovered: The War on Iraq and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, the latter of which he produced by reaching out to fans to raise the production budget for. Donate 50 bucks, his spiel went, and get your name in the film’s credits. It worked, because so many of us were so desperate for something that felt like a glimpse of the reality we weren’t seeing anywhere else.
And there’s the rub, and it’s a big one. There’s an argument to be made that these films are preaching to the choir, though I’m not buying that one: no one complains that churches preach to the choir, and these films are filling an information niche the corporate media ignores; if these films are “biased” toward a liberal or progressive viewpoint, they still cannot hope to counterbalance the overwhelmingly right-slanted corporate droning that’s all but unavoidable. No, the problem is this: You have to know about these films, know that you’re not getting the full story to seek them out. When there were only three channels on TV and Edward R. Murrow shamed a Senator, everyone knew about it. When you have to be aware of that non-studio-produced DVD giving you another side to the story in order to be aware that there’s another side to the story… How free is freedom of speech if the other side has a bigger bullhorn?