Michael Moore: Propagandist or Documentarian?

The conservative talking point on Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it’s “not a documentary, it’s a piece of propoganda.” Of course, they say that trying to ignore the fact that the two terms are not mutually exclusive.

A “documentary” film is supposed to be some sort of movie based on evidence of one sort or another. The folks opposing Michael Moore’s movie argue that it’s biased, one-sided, and therefore not worthy of the designation.

Seeking guidance, I went to some folks who could be considered the arbiters of what is or isn’t a piece of documentary filmmaking. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has an online database of these Oscar things they’ve been giving out for the past few years, including those in the Documentary feature category that they’ve awarded since 1943. Here’s what I found, based on those I’ve seen, information from the Academy site, and information on the Internet Movie Database.

As you might suspect, the period during and after World War II was fairly heavy on the military stuff. The first winner, Desert Victory, was from the British Ministry of Information and covered the defeat of Rommel’s forces in Northern Africa. It may have been entirely factual — although much of the work produced during the war tended to leave things like Allied mistakes out — but I’m fairly certain it didn’t include any interviews with Rommel or the German commanders, or any significant consideration for the viewpoint of the German side. It might even have qualified as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person,” which is the Merriam-Webster Online definition of propaganda.

The following years saw The Fighting Lady (U.S. Navy movie about the battles in the South Pacific), The True Glory (an Anglo-American production about the invasion of Europe, and Design for Death, 1947’s winner about how peaceful Japanese Shinto culture had been usurped by the samurai ethos to become a giant killing machine.

A film about an expedition to the Antarctic (The Secret Land, 1948) was the first non-war-related film to win a documentary Oscar. The following year’s Daybreak in Udi, however, won even though some of its footage dramatized the story of Nigerian townsfolk. So much for the “staging” part of the arguments against Moore.

The post-war era ushered in a series of winners produced by the likes of Walt Disney, Jaques-Yves Cousteau, and even disaster-flick great Irwin Allen. Nature films plus documentaries about historical figures (Michelangelo, Helen Keller, Albert Schweitzer, Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt) and more expeditions (Kon-Tiki, New Guinea) predominated the winners until the mid-1960s. The one exception to this string was 1962’s Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler, narrated by Marlene Dietrich. It wasn’t pro-Hitler or even neutral.

1966’s documentary winner was what we would call these days a “docudrama”. The War Game was set in an English city, after a nuclear war. For those of you who weren’t around at the time, there was no nuclear war in 1966.

A French Indochinese War veteran’s look at five days in the life of some Vietnam soldiers, The Anderson Platoon, won in 1967. Another war documentary took a more partisan view of its subject right from the title: The Panama Deception (1992) was the story about the last time a member of the Bush family deposed a dictator the U.S. had supported and the media’s collusion in the war’s run-up (sound familiar?). It was back to Vietnam for The Fog of War (2003). [Draco, on the Daily Kos site where I posted this comparison, pointed out that I missed the most controversial documentary of the Vietnam (and possibly any) era, 1974’s winner Hearts and Minds. Presenter Frank Sinatra read an official statement disassociating the Academy from the acceptance statements of the film’s producers. I apologize for the omission.]

Marjoe, (1972) a biography/expose of one-time child evangelist Marjoe Gortner showed how he had been used by others to separate the faithful from their money.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976, Eastover Mining strike), Down and Out in America (a co-winner in 1986, recession victims), and American Dream (1990, Hormel strike) all had very strong points of view (in the first and last of these, the very same view, since Barbara Kopple produced Harlan and co-produced Dream).

In addition to economics, social issue films with a point to make have also won consistently. In 1984, The Times of Harvey Milk told the story of the San Francisco city supervisor who (along with Mayor George Moscone) was assassinated in 1978 by his homophobic predecessor (who got only a brief jail term for the two murders). One of the producers won again in 1989 for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, a series of interviews of people with AIDS that also documented the failure of the Reagan administration to deal with the growing epidemic. Broken Rainbow (1985) detailed the story of a forced Navajo relocation in Arizona where 12,000 members of the tribe were moved — supposedly to settle a boundary dispute with the Hopi tribe. The film makes the point that some members of the tribe think the government wanted the land for energy development. 1993’s I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School documented a year in a Philadelphia inner-city grade school. The fight to free a black teenager beaten by police into confessing to a murder was the subject of 2001’s Murder on a Sunday Morning. Then, of course, there was Bowling for Columbine (2002).

By far the most popular subject for winners in the documentary category in the past couple of decades, however, has been the Holocaust and Israel. Considering that Bill O’Reilly is calling Moore the new Leni Riefenstahl and Tinseltown celebrities Nazis, you might be surprised that not a single winner of this Hollywood-based award praises the Third Reich. Apparently, the same people who voted for the films mentioned above also thought these movies were worthy of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar:

  • Genocide, (1981).
  • Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, (1988) about the war crimes and long search for “The Butcher of Lyon.”
  • Anne Frank Remembered, (1995) the story of Frank and her family.
  • The Last Days, (1998) Hungarian Jews who escaped the extermination visit the country of their birth.
  • One Day in September, (1999) about the Israeli athletes who were killed during the 1972 Olympics by Palestinian terrorists.
  • Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, (2000) about the children of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia whose parents sent them to England for safety before the war began.

Over one-third of the documentary winners listed on the Academy site have a social, historical, or political agenda of some kind. Sixteen of the past twenty years have had winners listed above. Sometimes the agenda is one that most people can agree with, like “Nazis is bad.” Other winners have a bit more controversial viewpoint. The folks in Down and Out in America were talking about how the economy sucked right in the middle of what was described during Reagan Week as the longest peacetime expansion ever. The Navajos in Broken Rainbow were saying the government had screwed them — again. Murder on a Sunday Morning made the point that people shouldn’t be beaten into confessing crimes they didn’t commit.

I have no doubt that every one of the filmmakers who won one of these awards would say their film was accurate and fair. Does that mean they were dispassionate about their viewpoint, presented an unbiased viewpoint, or told both sides of a story? Of course not. Starting right back with the first films to win the documentary Oscar — films made by the British and American governments — some of the best documentaries have been made to persuade, to inform, and to incite. So the next time someone tries to tell you Fahrenheit 9/11 is propaganda, not a documentary, whip out this list for them and let them argue the case for the Nazis.