Berlinale 2004 presented an overwhelmingly serious program that festival director Dieter Kosslick explained recognizes film as “…an art form that holds a mirror up to reality; that examines the real in retrospect, that is able to reflect upon real events and cry out in condemnation.” But how much influence do filmmakers have in defining reality, particularly when the medium is a documentary?
In the United States, Americans saw the Iraqi war unfold as pre-sented by embedded reporters – people who trained and traveled with American military. Live action pictures showed spectacular bomb raids with refer-ences to the “Shock and Awe” campaign of coalition forces. Soldiers marched into Baghdad, prisoners were rescued, and statutes to Saddam Hussein were toppled by the triumphant liber-ators. In addition, the military U.S. Central Command (CentCom) set up a communications center in Doha, Qatar, miles away from the actual fighting, for the purpose of regular briefings for major news media. An Egyptian-American director, Jehane Noujaim, traveled to the CentCom communications post in Qatar to witness how the news media went about the business of reporting war. In her film Control Room, she focuses on Qatari-based Al-Jazeera, an Arab news organization labeled as propagandist by the Bush administration.
Sameer Khader, a senior producer for Al-Jazeera, is against the Bush policy in Iraq but voices an appreciation for American values and a desire to move to the United States and “exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream.” He is shown berating an employee for arranging a live interview with a person who turns out to be an extremist with wild unsubstantiated opinions about the Bush administration. Translators broadcast press conferences from the White House live, making faces to express their disbelief but nevertheless completing the translation. Another producer for Al-Jazeera, Deema Khatib, describes American war coverage as the most incredible piece of theater she has ever seen. One example is the toppling of the statute of Saddam Hussein led by American soldiers. As the Al-Jazeera team watches the clip of a group of men rushing to the square, comments challenge whether the men are even Iraqis because of their accent and question why they appear to be around the same age; they question where all the other people are and why did one man happen to have an Iraqi flag from before Saddam’s reign?
Noujaim follows the progress of the war by interviewing Lt. Josh Rushing, press officer for Central Command. Rushing used to work in Hollywood negotiating script content to ensure the U.S. military was portrayed favorably in films. An aspiring actor, he appears very good at his job. Seemingly open-minded, Rushing debates American policies with Al-Jazeera journalists, but believes that the news station portrays America inaccurately. She also meets with Tom Mintier of CNN who is outraged by the lack of accurate information released by CentCom and with David Shuster of NBC who believes in the Western press and constantly clashes with Deema Khatib.
Featured in Noujaim’s interviews is Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist for Al-Jazeera from Sudan who went to school with Osama bin Laden, attended American universities and once headed the BBC Arab News Service. He believes Al-Jazeera is the only free news station in the Middle East. Passionately against the war in Iraq and the American presence in the Middle East, he praises the U.S. Constitution and hopes the American people will stop the madness of the Bush administration. Al-Jazeera aired tapes of American prisoners of war and dead American soldiers as well as Iraqi civilian casualties, all images that were barred from American broadcasts. Reports in the U.S. condemned Al-Jazeera for the broadcasts.
An Al-Jazeera journalist sits among sandbags on top of the building that houses the headquarters of Al-Jazeera in Baghdad. American bombers circle overhead. Ten minutes later, the journalist is killed by American bombs. On that same day, two other Arab news media headquarters in Baghdad are also bombed, killing another two journalists. Those are the facts. Why it happened can be considered either fact or fiction, depending on the perspective of the journalist or viewer, but the position of Noujaim is made clear.
One of the fascinating aspects of Control Room is the effort to compare and contrast an American with an Arab perspective by analyzing news events. A real impact on these perspectives is made by how the interviews and news events are edited down to just 84 minutes.
Another documentary, Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, takes a frank look at how the media itself impacts the story. In Neverland, director Robert Stone studies the rise of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the first domestic terrorist cell in the U.S. to become a media sensation. Interspersed among actual newsreels from television archives are images of Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde and Che Guevara – icons of the SLA members. Russ Little, one of the founders of the SLA, explains how he grew up watching shows like Robin Hood where heroes fought valiantly against an oppressive government. Little railed against the government of Tricky Dicky Nixon and U.S. aggression in Vietnam. Then came the killing of college students at Kent State in May 1970 followed by the re-election of Nixon. Nightly television highlighted the bloody battles of Vietnam. Massive protests continued. So in August 1973, Little and Mike Bortin, along with their radical Black Power cohorts Willie Wolfe and Donald DeFreeze (who recently escaped from prison), joined together to fight a government they considered hijacked by a bunch of warmongering, power-hungry, right-wing criminals. Their only plan was to shake things up, which began with murdering a black school superintendent in Oakland, California, Marcus Foster, who they thought was part of a racist cop conspiracy. Foster was in fact a well-respected member of the community who was admired by students and parents alike. Little was arrested along with Joe Remiro after being stopped by police with SLA paraphernalia in the car. No one had ever heard of the SLA, and the police had nothing else to go on.
The other members of the SLA then decide to kidnap the daughter of right-wing publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst Jr., and in early February 1974 they kidnap Patty Hearst, leaving her fiancé beaten. Here the media frenzy really begins. No one knows anything about the SLA. No one knows where Patty Hearst is or what the SLA wants. So reporters start camping out in front of the Hearst mansion, where it is not long before regular broadcasts are made, including statements from Patty’s fiancé and parents.
The SLA takes advantage of the media frenzy and demands that lengthy statements be disseminated in the press. “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” is their motto. In the image of Robin Hood, they demand that Hearst use his fortunes to feed the poor in California. With far less than the $300 million demanded by the SLA, Hearst does indeed organize a program to distribute food but the process results in mayhem in San Francisco. About two months later, Patty Hearst announces that she has joined the SLA and is now Tania. Less than two weeks later, she robs a bank with other SLA members. Two bystanders are shot. The bank security camera footage of Tania brandishing a gun is shown over and over on the nightly news. The next month, six members of the SLA die in a shoot out with about 500 officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. The entire assault is broadcast live on television with reporters scurrying behind cars to avoid gunfire. Subsequent crimes of the SLA are followed closely by the media. Patty Hearst and three SLA members are arrested in San Francisco. Hearst is found guilty of bank robbery.
Neverland showcases reporting sensational events plain and simple. Statements from the Hearst family and friends, the SLA and Patty Hearst herself were broadcast as the events happened, without spin. References in the documentary to Robin Hood or Che and even the final televised interview of Patty Hearst on a talk show serve to present the Zeitgeist surrounding the Vietnam war era. Compared to Control Room, Neverland reveals journalism for what it used to be, while Control Room shows just how news today can be manipulated. Both films are well worth seeing.
Perhaps another way the documentary style can be used to manipulate rather than just present facts is the collage documentary Freedom2Speak V2.0, wherein a group of German directors collect opinions and ideas of people in the film industry about American foreign policy after 9/11. The central idea arose during the Berlinale 2003 as the crises between the U.S. and Iraq deepened. A Speaker’s Corner was set up, and several camera crews fanned out among festival goers. Over the course of twelve days, more than 100 people were interviewed, and interviews conducted at the Speaker’s Corner were streamed onto a monitor in real time and shown to the public on www.freedom2speak.net. After compiling a 70-minute documentary entitled f2s-berlinale that aired on German television, directors Markus C.M. Schmidt, Christoph Gampl, Brigitte Kramer, Marc Meyer and Uwe Nagel pieced together more than fifty interviews and twelve freestyle short films for V2.0, this 60-minute film.
A unique feature of this film is that anyone can log on the freedom2speak.net website, watch the interviews and shorts, and edit the film however they want. Look at comments from Dustin Hoffman, John Hurt, Minnie Driver or Luc Picard; if you don’t like what you hear, edit it for your own copy. Insert your own opinions as well. Regardless of how the information was compiled, there is no question that this film is a voice for peace and rally against the forces of war. Click online and speak out or order the video.
Another look at the use of documentary style is Go Further, a film by Robert Mann of a bike tour along the Pacific Coast Highway in California by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is convinced that social change is always the result of an individual’s effort. He hires a bus that runs on hemp oil and assembles an eclectic group of friends to bicycle and support him as he tries to raise environmental awareness along the way. Harrelson’s companions include a yoga teacher (Jessica Chung), a raw food chef (Renee Loux Underkoffler), a hemp-activist (Joe Hickey), a junk-food addict and flirt (Steve Clark), a lawyer (Tom Ballanco), a website manager (Laura Louie of www.voiceyourself.com), a bar fly (Sonia Farrell) and a college student who is picked up on campus by Steve and joins the group. Joe Lewis, who Harrelson met while filming White Men Can’t Jump, is the driver.
While Underkoffler cooks up luscious raw meals including a chocolate avocado mousse (Harrelson co-published her book Living Cuisine: The Art and Spirit of Raw Foods), Clark sneaks off to the local supermarket for chips and cigarettes. Along the road they stop at a small paper company that makes paper out of hemp instead of trees and at a farm where worms and manure are used to create a fertilizer for organic farming. Not everyone is open to the concept. A woman views the upside-down American flag on one of the bicycles as unpatriotic and as a total block to listening to anything they have to say. Security guards keep the group away from a manufacturing plant. Perhaps the most compelling parts of the film are where Harrelson connects with those along the way either by teaching an impromptu yoga class, speaking passionately on environmental issues or giving a prepared speech to a crowd. He’s well-informed and practical about how individuals can indeed make a difference. Some credibility of the film is lost, however, in the emphasis on Clark and his quest for junk food and girls. He’s funny smoking pot and in his incredulity over milk being full of blood and pus, but if environmental problems are ever going to be seriously addressed by the mainstream where changes can happen on a more global scale, the serious issues need to be removed from the image of pot-smoking hippies. But for the high school and college crowd, such a documentary film can be a very powerful teacher. (Mary Nyiri)
One of the funnier films at the Berlinale was the U.S. documentary The Yes Men, which follows the antics of a group of political activists who impersonate the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Yes Men started by creating the bogus website gwbush.org during George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign. They quickly moved on to bigger and better things by creating the gatt.org website, which many groups mistook for the WTO’s website. Soon, they were receiving invitations to international conferences (in Austria and Finland) and even television programs (CNBC Marketwrap Europe) to speak on behalf of the WTO. They attended these events posing as WTO representatives, but instead of talking about real policies, they lectured on such ideas as selling votes to the highest corporate bidder, allowing countries to commit human rights abuses with a system of “justice vouchers”, and even combating widespread hunger by making the poor eat “recycled” hamburgers. The film does a great job of showing activists “on the front lines” while making a strong case for their ideological viewpoints, plus its often very funny subject matter was a welcome relief from all of the heavy films shown at the festival. (Kirsten Greco)
Death in Gaza is another impressive documentary film about today’s politics, and not just because the cameraman died in the line of duty. James Miller and Saira Shah go to Gaza, that Egyptian city full of Palestinian refugees and controlled by Israel. They follow the lives of three children: 12-year-olds Ahmed and Mohammed and teenager Nailja. Ahmed watches as a friend is shot dead by an Israeli sniper. He turns to his neighborhood paramilitary group and becomes their lookout and general water boy. Mohammed’s mother cringes when he says that he wishes to die as a martyr. Nailja has attended many funerals of close relatives. Each day on the way to school the three children observe Israeli soldiers and their allies, Bedouin Arabs, pull down houses and bulldoze wide strips of land to create a no-man’s land just a few feet away. The filmmakers visit masked terrorists who have no qualms about using small boys for their wars, indoctrinating them with the will to become suicide bombers. Each dead boy’s photo is plastered on the public walls. His corpse is carried through the streets. The martyr public relations department is alive and well. Miller and his crew visit Nailja and her family. During the day they “exchange pleasantries” with the Israeli soldiers patrolling just a few feet from Nailja’s house. Around 11 p.m. they decide to return to their hotel. Carrying a white flag, they call out to the soldiers that they are leaving the area. On their way out 34-year-old Miller is shot in the neck between his helmet and bullet proof vest and dies on the spot. So far no one has accounted for the deed. The family has called for a full and proper investigation. The Palestinian paramilitaries celebrated him as a martyr and painted his name and dates on their walls, too. In his short life of 34 years he won recognition for Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, both films about Afghanistan.
Compared to these other excellent films, the all-women Texas-Kabul seems lightweight. German director Helga Reidemeister interviewed Arundhati Roy, a best-selling novelist, on conflicts with Muslims in India. She talked to Stascha Zajovic, who founded the Women in Black in Belgrade. Every eleventh day of each month these women demonstrate to remind people of loved-ones lost under the Milosovic rule. Jamila Muhajed publishes the only women’s magazine in Afghanistan. Sissy Farenthold is from Texas, 76 years old, and a former law professor and politician. She works for worldwide human rights. These women speak into the camera, almost by rote, which may well be the case, considering that they must have been interviewed hundreds of times. Their words about suffering and injustice come across as clichés, even after their statements are underlined by real pictures of desperately disadvantaged people in India or Serbia and Afghanistan. What could have been a powerful film is not, unfortunately. (Becky Tan)