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Docs in Sight: The New Dawn of the Profitable Political Film

May 5 wasn’t only Cinco de Mayo but also marked a day of revolution for political documentaries in the arena of popular culture. The New York Times reported—below the fold, but center—that "Disney Is Blocking Distribution of Film That Criticizes Bush." This referred, of course, to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, an openly partisan film that criticizes the Bush administration and that went on to become the first documentary in many decades to win the top prize at the Cannes film festival. Needless to say, for Moore it was yet another publicity coup.

Finally, it seems political documentary film is reaching a point of being not only of widespread cultural and political significance but also, probably for the first time, an extremely profitable undertaking. Moore’s previous film, Bowling for Columbine, made for $3 million and became a record-breaker by earning $22 million in the U.S. and upwards of $100 million in foreign and DVD sales. There’s little doubt many distributors are salivating for Fahrenheit 9/11, even though Disney—foolishly from their shareholders’ point of view—passed on it.

And it doesn’t seem like the phenomenon is based only on the Michael Moore franchise. Sociopolitical documentaries that are getting good publicity are opening the floodgates and gaining an increased audience. The Fog of War, Super Size Me!, and Control Room have done well, if not fantastic, in wide release, and The Corporation, a Canadian documentary opening at the end of the month, reportedly grossed a million dollars (nearly its production cost) over one weekend in Canadian theaters. If these films continue to do well in the United States, it may finally be a turning point to what is shown at multiplexes around the country. Even if corporate executives are threatened by the content of many of these films, one of the maxims of capitalism is that if profit margins are high enough, the system usually errs on the side of making money.

The Corporation
(opens June 30 at Film Forum, followed by a wider release)

This epic and ambitious project, touted as the new Bowling for Columbine, definitely utilizes a similar stylistic template of momentum and humor to drive forward the thesis that corporations are psychopathic in character. It includes many voices you would expect, including Moore and Noam Chomsky, but also has some surprising cameos from Milton Friedman, various CEOs, and the like. The film was lauded and vilified in the Canadian press and extremely popular at the box office. In many ways, this film’s success here in the vortex of corporate power will be a test to see if Americans can face intense criticism of what has become the dominant social, cultural, and political institution in our lives.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
June 10–24 at Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center (

One of the best festivals for sociopolitical film this year includes Jonathan Stack’s new film Liberia: An Uncivil War, about the chaos that engulfed the African country; Deadline, about Illinois Republican George Ryan’s commuting the sentences of all 167 prisoners on Death Row; and Persons of Interest, a film of testimonials from former Arab detainees rounded up in America after 9/11. There’s also the Sundance favorite Born Into Brothels about child prostitutes in India and the much-anticipated film about political hi-jinxsters, The Yes Men.

Still from "Farmingville"

by Catherine Tambini. Farmingville (premiers on PBS’s POV series on June 22nd)

Just a few miles from the edges of our usually tolerant city is a town where just a few years back some disgruntled white folks savagely beat some Mexican immigrants whom they felt were taking their jobs. Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini’s Sundance-winning film is a force of explanation and an insightful look into how the border wars have reached suburbia.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2004

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