How Documentaries Can “Occupy” Our Minds

By Robert Goff

As a follower of the Academy Awards ceremony each year, I’ve noticed that Hollywood bestows more acclaim on documentaries about marching penguins or distant events in history than on those on contemporary political issues. However, some political documentaries have actually won awards in recent years, and the Academy has reluctantly given their makers a televised platform to amplify their message. For instance, Michael Moore delivered— before interruption—a memorable speech condemning George W. Bush when Bowling for Columbine won in 2002. In 2007, Al Gore spoke out about global warming after his Inconvenient Truth (directed by Davis Guggeheim) won an Oscar.

At the 2011 ceremony, Charles Ferguson, the director of Inside Job, bravely took the opportunity to reach a global audience when he accepted the award for Best Documentary with these words: “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong!” I like to think that Ferguson’s message was heard by a billion people around the world and fueled some of the present anger at the One Percent.

On Inside Job’s 2010 release in Providence, I was reminded of the power of documentaries when an audience at a Sunday matinee at the Avon Cinema burst into spontaneous applause at the end. The film is about the origins of our current financial crisis, a subject we all need to understand but one I never dreamed had any entertainment appeal. Yet Inside Job clearly succeeded in providing not only enlightenment, but also inspiration for a large Providence audience. Our engagement with the subject of economic meltdown was not due to the narration by a Hollywood star, Matt Damon, nor the better-than-average cinematography but, I think, more about our collective realization that deceitful human agency was behind the mind-boggling financial losses on a global scale. There was also the satisfaction that came from following the film’s lucid explanations of previously bewildering economic complexity.

By the end of the film, the concept of the global economy was no longer only an abstraction and I actually had some inkling about the meaning of the term “derivatives.” Moreover, I could now associate the concept of “unimaginable greed” with a few more faces than Bernie Madoff’s. With the help of the film’s excellent website (http://www. sonyclassics.com/insidejob/) and its countless links to supporting documentation on the crisis, I became surprisingly confident that I could argue with right-wing colleagues in the economics department of my own college.

The film Inside Job continues to instruct and incite as it circulates around Occupy camps across the nation and— most probably— the world. Here in Providence, the cameras of members of the Occupy movement such as Paul Hubbard, Phil LeStein and Robert Malin have documented the evolution of the encampment at Burnside Park, recorded our frequent political actions, and live-streamed video to audiences outside of Rhode Island. Maybe the revolution will not be televised, but documentary films made here in Providence, and elsewhere, can help to inspire it.

Ever since Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger and Me examined the consequences of deindustrialization and dared to question the decisions of then-CEO of GM, Roger Smith, American audiences have shown an eager appreciation of documentaries informing them about economic forces shaping their lives. In hindsight, the cinematic image of Moore’s blue-collar “everyman” in a baseball cap railing against corporate decision-making and showing sympathy for the unemployed sowed the seeds for the Occupy movement to flourish some twenty years later. It is no accident that Moore was an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street and helped to finance The Occupied Wall Street Journal, which was the inspiration for this publication.

Over two decades, Moore’s films have occupied the minds of ever-larger audiences with their entertaining lessons on the workings of capitalism, observations on the lunacies of a right-wing culture and open defiance of the militaristic tone of American foreign policy. The native of Flint, Michigan, has also made us laugh in dark times. The massive box-office success of Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrated that Americans wanted an alternative voice to Bush-era presidential news confer- ences or the views of conservative pundits appearing on corporately owned news media.

I can still remember the undercurrent of audience anticipation for a first showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 at the Providence Place Mall in 2004. It was clear then that politically engaged documentary films, especially on a large screen in a movie theater, could be as exciting as fictional films and also lot more informative than following the mainstream news from day to day. Good documentaries reveal the big picture of what is going on in the world and, sometimes, help to connect us to each other— just like the Occupy movement.

Robert Goff teaches in the School of Continuing Education at Providence College.

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