Left Docudrama 2004

Joseph G.

The year 2004 offered up a number of notable socially critical documentary films.  A few of these, especially Fahrenheit 9/11, reached an unprecedented American audience, impacting even the “mainstream” corporate media discourse in a major way.  Other left-documentaries, including a number from the Media Education Foundation, as well as the excellent Canadian documentary, The Corporation, have received markedly less attention.  While the success of Michael Moore’s work is a clear sign of our increasingly politicized and polarized times, each of these docudramas makes for a potentially power-ful activist-tool here “in the belly of the beast” (as Che, now himself the subject of a major motion picture, The Motorcycle Diaries, might have put it).  From a socialist, anti-imperialist perspective, none of these works constitute a fully developed political state-ment. Yet as cultural and political works-in-progress, as texts calling for analysis and further discussion, the documentaries of 2004 open a door to critical thinking about US society on a mass scale, offering ample scope for radical reflection.

Missing Left, Missing Links in Fahrenheit 9/11

Far and away, Fahrenheit 9/11 overshadowed all other documentariesand most mainstream movies—of 2004. An entertaining and moving film, it raises crucial concerns about the inequities of US capitalism, the human costs of US militarism, and the propa-gandistic nature of US media and government.  Lampooning the Bush administration, Halliburton, and the Carlyle Group, and exposing the hypocrisies of the ruling establish-ment as a whole, the film is—in typical Michael Moore fashion—both deeply sad and uproariously funny.

Unfortunately, however, F9/11 fails to develop its entertaining radical “moments” into a coherent critique of US imperialism.  Focusing almost exclusively on the “exceptional” Bush administration, the film ignores the continuities of US imperialist motivation and method in dealing with Iraq, the Middle East, and the world since World War II.  Moore’s previous work, Bowling for Columbine, suggests—albeit somewhat impression-istically—that Moore knows better; that he is well aware of the mass murder endemic to modern US foreign policy, in Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere, as well as in Iraq.  Yet F9/11 seems to have repressed this “un-American” knowledge in order to settle into a patriotic (and profitable) populism that all but confines its critique to the Bush administration and its cronies.

Moore impressively (and often hilariously) recounts a whole slew of criticisms of the Bush II administration, using previously unseen “inside” footage to electrify old points grown cold, and a musical score that imbues the facts with sentiment and irony.  But Moore’s shortsighted pragmatism creates the illusion that the big moral and political dilemma facing us today is not that the US military dominates large parts of the world (for the benefit of the ruling class), but simply that the Bush Administration, in this rare and exceptional case, did not tell us and “our” soldiers the truth.  In the end, Fahrenheit 9/11 indulges in the dangerous populist fantasy of the US as a “great” “freedom-fighting” nation, and sentimentalizes the suffering of the US military as “gifts given to us.”  “They fight, so that we don’t have to…so that we can be free,” Moore explains in a preachy moment near film’s end. Never, of course, does Moore bother to analyze any of the dozens of US military actions since 1945; doing so in a serious fashion would, after all, tend to shatter any myth of America as the “great liberator.”

Furthermore, despite its quick jabs at spineless Democrats, Moore’s film never gestures beyond the horizon of the two major US parties.  Most frustrating of all for this activist-viewer, in fact, was the way that the film totally hides from view the faces and voices of the massive, global anti-war movement that took to the streets during the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq.  Essentially, the picture that Moore presents us of US ‘public opinion’ in the lead-up to war—for all his supposed media-savvy—differs little from the one shown by US corporate media: there is no dissent; everyone naively trusts the President; we were all duped.  Of the massive movement against the war that existed outside the US, Moore says not a word.

Was I naive to have been surprised and upset by Moore’s minimizing of the left in this film?  Early on in F9/11, I sensed reason for hope.  After all, when recounting the “theft” of the 2000 election by George W. Bush, Moore shows the Senate Democrats’ complicity in effectively disenfranchising thousands of black Florida voters.  Then, following this sequence, Moore cuts to footage of the 2001 “Shadow Inauguration” in DC, where—in stark contrast to the passive Senate Dems— tens of thousands of militant anti-Bush protesters took it upon themselves to block Bush’s inaugural procession.  At this point in the film, Moore appears to be genuinely on the side of these outraged people in the street (as opposed to the passive politicians in Congress).  As this egg-chucking direct action forces the newly inaugurated Prez—for the first time in US history—to double back and forego the ceremonial walk into the White House, the potential power of the people is implied.  Similarly, in Moore’s review of the process by which the USA PATRIOT Act was voted into law, the government as a whole comes in for deserved criticism for passing this proto-fascist bill virtually unanimously, without most of Congress ever having read it.  We must look elsewhere for our real leaders, the film seems to be saying.

But when it comes to the crucial period leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the period of the Bush administration’s intense propaganda effort to manufacture consent and Congressional approval, Moore loses sight of those people in the street. The left, in short, gets left out.  Hiding behind the unexamined “fact” that a “majority of Americans trusted Bush” about Iraq—the film paints a picture of an America without dissent from the war-mongers’ consensus.  It is as if we were all—like the majority of Kerry’s Democrats in the Senate—“convinced” by the administration’s claims: about Iraq’s WMDs, about Iraq’s propensity to use such weapons if it had possessed them, about Saddam’s ties to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, about the likelihood of US occupation bringing real democracy or security to the Iraqi people, about the “surgical” nature of US Cruise missile strikes.

Shamefully, there is not a trace in the film of the more than one million Ameri-cans, and of the over ten million people worldwide who took to the streets—in many cases took over the streets—just on Feb. 15, 2003 alone, to publicly oppose a US attack on Iraq.  Even CNN and the networks were forced to cover that day of mass protest, yet F9/11 leaves it out.  Why?  As I write this, it saddens and frustrates me to think of what Moore might have done with this poignant piece of repressed contemporary history.

In response to criticism of F9/11, Moore has often spoken rightfully of how—contrary to the cliché— it is critical to “preach to the choir” in order to fire them up and get them singing loud and clear to the unconverted.  This in mind: how vindicating and energizing it would have been for anti-war activists—and how potentially illuminating for others—if Moore had bothered to represent the prophetic views and to dramatize the diverse, militant, global mass actions of the anti-war movement of 2002-03!  It could have made for a great film-sequence—the record-breaking crowds in London, Madrid, and Rome, all those different placards and protest art, ranging from liberal to radical in message, the vivacious street theatre, the police riots in California, as well as in Turkey and Egypt.  It would have fired activist types up, while forcing other viewers to grapple both with the international nature of the current conjuncture and with the idea that there is (or could be) an alternative to “lesser evil” voting-and-hoping in the US, a praxis beyond the ballot box, where people who really want to end the war in Iraq could put their outrage, time and energy.

In the course of discussing the abuses of the USA PATRIOT Act, Moore does present us with a brief portrait of one local peace group, Peace Fresno, a small, mostly white, weekly meeting group that was infiltrated by law enforcement as a potentially “terrorist” organization.  Moore depicts Peace Fresno as an almost comically harmless neighborhood club that hangs out together to “eat cookies” and “talk about peace.”  Interested only in how they were affected by the government surveillance, not in their ideas or political practices, Moore does not allow liberal Peace Fresno to offer their views on the Iraq occupation or US foreign policy.  Shown to us slumped in reclining chairs—like good Americans—rather than out in the street agitating and protesting, Peace Fresno is included chiefly to poke fun at the excesses of the PATRIOT Act (while the more serious government abuses perpetrated against the thousands of Middle Eastern and South Asian people in this country are ignored by the film).  Forget ANSWER, Not In Our Name, all the Anarchist groups, Veterans for Peace, AFSC, UJP, Socialist Workers Party, etc.; Peace Fresno is depoliticized and cut off from any larger movement.  In fact, ironically, it would seem to be Moore’s point that the problem with the USA PATRIOT Act is that it bothers to pay attention to harmless little groups like Peace Fresno.  Apparently, for Moore, such groups are not worthy of serious attention, governmental or otherwise.

Having erased the anti-war movement as an option, Fahrenheit 9/11’s select examples of people undergoing political “transformation” have no place to go.  The strongest statement he elicits is from an Iraq-war veteran who tells the camera that even if his unit is ordered back to Iraq, he won’t return “to kill other poor people.”  A more typical declaration is: “I used to be a Republican, but now I’m going to work for the Democratic Party where I live.”  Such expressions of political “awakening”—mostly from Iraq-veterans—are quite different, and much more limiting, than statements like, for instance: “I’m going to work to end this war,” or “We’ve got to end the occupation of Iraq now.”  No one in Moore’s film utters such a “controversial,” principled anti-occupation (let alone anti-imperialist) statement—though presumably “Bring the troops home now” is still Michael Moore’s own political line.

It seems likely, of course, that the omission of the serious anti-war movement from Fahrenheit 9/11 stems from Moore’s reluctance to publicly criticize or embarrass John Kerry in a crucial election year.  Kerry, after all, not only voted for the October 2002 Senate Resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, but also—while millions were in the street demolishing Bush’s argument for war—strongly reaffirmed his stance.

My worry is that Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, for all its creative virtues and its radical populism, masks from view the alternative, “actually existing” forms of political agency needed to end the current imperialist occupation.  The film (as well as its official website) does little to make the millions of Bush-haters out there aware of the existence of politics beyond the frustrating offerings of the two-(war)-party system.  Indeed, if the post-film theatre cheers of “Vote for Kerry!” which accompanied the rolling of Moore’s credits (even in the liberal “safe state” where I reside) are any indication, for many folks the film would seem to be reinvigorating their faith in the two-party establishment, rather than challenging them to push beyond it.

Following Up F9/11

Thankfully, as a 2004 follow-up and a corrective to Fahrenheit 9/11, we can turn to the Media Education Foundation’s Hijacking Catastrophe, a documentary which, while darker and drier than Moore’s, not only acknowledges the global anti-war movement, but shows why this international movement is needed, perhaps more now than ever.  In short, the film provides a historically informed, textually documented struc-tural analysis of what really drove the Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq.  Hijacking Catastrophe closely examines the persons, ideology, and political strategy of the neoconservative cabal driving Bush administration foreign policy.  Indeed, whereas Paul Wolfowitz makes only a brief cameo appearance in F9/11—silently spitting on his comb, he quickly brought hisses from the audience where I first watched the film—here he figures prominently as the administration’s major ideologue.  The film shows how Wolfowitz, along with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumseld, Richard Perle, and others, since even before the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the opening of a post-Cold War “power vacuum,” religiously promoted the imperial objective of securing permanent US military and economic supremacy over the entire world. The film docu-ments this hubristic drive citing a Wolfowitz-authored Pentagon document as well as position papers from policy groups of which he and Rumsfeld et al. were members (especially the Project for a New American Century), culminating in the “National Security Strategy” document of 2002, which essentially made the neocon “Bush Doctrine” official policy.

After establishing this decade-old agenda and exposing its chief proponents, Hijacking Catastrophe proceeds to document how the neoconservatives in the Bush administration “hijacked” the terrorist tragedy of September 11, 2001 in order to push this pre-existing imperial agenda.  Key aspects of the neo-con agenda include promoting regime change in Iraq (and eventually in Iran and Syria) in order to increase the US military presence and control over the oil-producing regions of the Middle East, as well as to eliminate any potential regional deterrent to Israeli military actions.  (On the issue of Israel, I should note, the Media Education Foundation’s equally provocative documen-tary, Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land, is essential 2004 viewing.  It powerfully speaks to F9/11’s conspicuous—indeed shameful—evasion of all issues related US-Israeli relations, while helping also to explain why even Michael Moore—independent, muckraker extraordinaire that he is—steers clear of highlighting this third rail of Ameri-can politics.)

Going beyond Moore’s suggestion that the Iraq invasion was launched mainly for the sake of Halliburton and Bush’s war-profiteering friends—significant perks for neocon imperialists, no doubt, but certainly not their primary motive for invading Iraq nowHijacking Catastrophe exposes the underlying imperial drives at work in the back rooms of the Bush administration.

The Edges of Externality

The Corporation, the final film I’ll examine in this article, takes from the best of both strands of 2004’s political documentaries—the agit-entertainment strand of Fahren-heit 9/11, and the drier but more systematic analyses of the Media Education Project.  Directed by Mark Achbar (previous co-director of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) and Jennifer Abbot, and based on the book by Joel Bakan—The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Power and Profit—this radical Canadian documentary features Left-notables such as Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein, as well as thirty-odd lesser-known corporate experts: “CEOs, whistle blowers, brokers, gurus, spies, players, pawns, and pundits,” as the film’s promo-tional blurb proudly declares.  As both a critical analysis and a dramatic indictment of the “dominant institution of our era,” The Corporation probes far deeper than Michael Moore, while entertaining better than the documentaries from the Media Education Foun-dation.  This film merits serious attention and deserves a truly super-sized audience (one that it seems, unfortunately, unlikely to get in the US).

Beginning with a fast-paced overview of the recent explosion of corporate crime scandals, the movie proceeds to satirize the dominant media’s diagnosis of this scandal “crisis” as the product of a few—OK, a few dozen— “bad apples” stinking up otherwise healthy Corporate America.  The film breaks down this “bad apple” metaphor, demonstrating again and again how the public “rotting” of corporate “apples” is little but the open flowering of the corruption present in these institutions’ very capitalist seeds.

In its early sequences, The Corporation examines how corporations acquired the status of legal persons in the first place, soon after the US Civil War.  Wittily, it then charts the corporate “person’s” behavior against a psychiatric checklist from the World Health Organization, using a number of corporate abuse cases as evidence.  “Callous unconcern for the feelings of others?”—Check.  “Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships?”—Check.  “Reckless disregard for the safety of others?”—Check.  “Deceitfulness; repeated lying…?”—Check.  “Incapacity to experience guilt?”—CheckCheck.  Check.  Check.  The damning diagnosis is that the corporation, examined as a “person,” is a “psychopath.”

“Unaccountable, private tyrannies” is how Noam Chomsky describes them, likening the institution to slavery, which deformed slave-owners—whatever their benevolent intentions or particular personalities—to behave brutally and inhumanely.  From its early moments The Corporation thus moves beyond superficial demonization or fetishization of “bad” corporations—Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Weapons, Big Fast Food—towards a critical, historical and institutional analysis of corporations’ very structure and nature.  In this sense the film goes further than either Fahrenheit 9/11 (anti-Bush, anti-Big Oil and anti-Big Weapons) or Morgan Spurlock’s SuperSize Me! (anti-Big Fast Food).

But not only does the film analyze the origins, history, behavior patterns, and social and environmental effects of corporations; it also manages to be an entertaining movie, one that is creatively organized and well produced.  Though it relies heavily on individual interviews, for instance, The Corporation seldom drags, periodically picking up the pace with clever editing and help from a strong beat-driven soundtrack.

For the most part, The Corporation focuses its critique closely on the concept of “externalities,” that is, the external—often undesirable—effects of business transactions between two parties (often two corporations) upon an unconsulted third party (often the surrounding community).  Indeed, the film presents a devastating barrage of such ‘unin-tended’ corporate attacks on the environment, public health, and public access to infor-mation.  Yet in keeping with this approach, The Corporation tends to focus more on the “unaccountability” of corporations and less on their intrinsic “tyranny” as capitalist enterprises, more on the ‘external’ damage done by these institutions than on the internal exploitation and repression which they carry out within their factory walls and office hallways, especially with respect to their labor forces.

In fact, while this film boasts a diversity of points-of-view, the perspective of one major group of “corporate insiders” is notably absent: that of the workers whose labor makes these corporations run.

For the most part, the only corporate “insiders” the film interviews are CEOs and managers, with the exception of two news-reporter “whistle-blowers” from Fox 13 News in Florida (whose story, I must note, dramatically demonstrates the willingness of the corporate media producers to censor the “news” in their corporate sponsors’ interests).  But no factory or service sector workers, no union organizers, no cubicled white-collar employees appear, at least not for long.  To be fair, “harm to employees” is one of the “file categories” examined by the filmmakers during their mock psychiatric exam of the corporation as a “person”; yet little or no attention is paid to the self-activity of workers within and against these corporations, or to the role that the state plays in disabling such self-activity.  In fact, the only example of labor activism shown is that of the American National Labor Council’s external exposé of sweatshop and child-labor in Kathy Lee Gifford’s Latin American garment factories.  The workers here generally appear as passive victims, apparently yet another “externality” for the corporation.  Their status as “internalities,” with the potential power to transform—or even to shut down or take over—the corporation from within is virtually ignored.

Related to “externality,” the other central concept of the film’s anti-corporate critique is privatization, the corporate takeover of previously public resources.  From the human genome to the inside of children’s imaginations, to Iraqi oil, to the public water-supply, to the song “Happy Birthday,” the directors bring us a slew of shocking and outrageous examples of corporations crossing the line—whether “the line” is ethical, communal, moral, religious, or legal—to control what instinct or tradition tells us should be free for all.  Clearly nothing is sacred, no line impermeable, no site off-limits to these out-of-control entities.

Also impressive are the accounts by Howard Zinn and Chomsky of corporate complicity in the rise of fascism.  They point out how in Europe during the 1930s, and even in the US during the Roosevelt reign, as well as throughout the 20th century in Latin America, major corporations have routinely supported right-wing coup-attempts and dictatorships.  As Chomsky notes, it makes sense: fascists have after all been great defenders of corporate interests, repressing labor unions, destroying left-wing political parties, and issuing large and profitable military contracts.  Mussolini as well as Adolf Hitler benefited greatly from corporate aid, the film shows, with IBM in particular coming in for shame for supplying and maintaining the German punch-card machines that kept track of people in the Nazi concentration and death camps, all the way through the early 1940s.

The extensive corporate complicity in the rise of fascism is routinely excluded from US history textbooks and mainstream political discourse.  (This fact alone should demand that all high school and college students in the US today see this movie.) In fact even Edwin Black—author of IBM and the Holocaust and interviewed in the film—tends to understate the broader trend in the course of highlighting the exceptional evil of IBM.  Like many writers, Black evades the underlying—and often anti-communist and anti-union—motivations that led corporations to cooperate with and support the Nazis early on.  Thus, Black’s book does not so much as mention the labor unionists, socialists, and communists who were among the first to be rounded up and killed by Hitler’s SS.  With the help of the graying professors of US radicalism, however, The Corporation thankfully puts the ever-so-timely link between big business and the black-shirts back on the table.

Lest we become hopeless in the face of seemingly endless corporate tyranny, The Corporation closes with an examination of some of the local victories that mass movements in the third world—as well as consumer and community movements in the US— have won against modern-day corporate encroachments.  The film pays special attention to the successful Bolivian mass movement against water privatization, as well as to an anti-corporate town meeting in Arcata, California, and the internal corporate reform efforts of Ray Anderson, CEO of the world’s largest carpet manufacturing company.

In the end, though, what The Corporation left me with is the stark contrast between the movement in Bolivia, which successfully mobilized what amounted to a general strike to face down their corrupt police state, and the limited, rather unfocused victories of the Arcatans, who manage to ban fast-food chains from their city limits but who don’t seem to know where to go from there, not to mention the rather facile optimism and self-righteousness of American corporate reformer Ray Anderson, who hopes to clean up his carpet-corporation from within, while still maintaining its hefty profit margins.  Unfortunately, Premiere magazine no doubt has not been alone in deeming Anderson the “bona fide hero” of the movie, as a CEO who has been born-again as an environmentalist and “still has his job.”  But really, although The Corporation does let Anderson give his own account of his ecological epiphany, showing him as he lectures his (seemingly apathetic) fellow businessmen on the need to move towards ecological business balance, it is the scenes from Bolivia—where tens of thousands take to the streets, and where dozens are shot down for simply asserting their human right to public water—that produce the real heroes of this film.  “I see dark days ahead for my children,” Bolivian activist Oscar Olivera tells the camera, “but I have faith in the people… El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido.”  The people united, will never be defeated.  Spoken softly in Spanish to the camera, Olivera’s comments are hopeful, yet neither naive nor self-serving.  His words remind me of Italian Marxist and communist organizer Antonio Gramsci, who, from within his fascist prison-cell in the 1930s, called for “pessimism of the intellect” but “optimism of the will.”

Still, while this remarkable film depicts plenty of local resistance—from India to Canada, New York to California—one would have liked to see The Corporation (and one would still like to see its viewers) move beyond its extensive discussion of the way that corporations routinely violate the (moral as well as juridical) law to a consideration of political strategy.  Likewise, I believe that we need to move beyond Chomsky’s assertion that corporations are simply “legal institutions” and hence theoretically capable of being restrained or even abolished by that same law to a political discussion of the extent to which corporations have effectively taken over the law and the lawmakers as well.  Major corporations after all, practically speaking, via campaign contributions, incessant lobbying efforts, and control of media discourse, have to a remarkable degree co-opted the leadership of both major US parties, the White House, most of the Congress, and most regulatory agencies.

On this note, perhaps the most conspicuous absence in The Corporation’s long line of experts is corporate-raider Ralph Nader, whose biographical trajectory from long-time regulatory and reform advocate to anti-corporate political campaigner could have added a recognizably and explicitly political edge to this otherwise radical work.  Without necessarily implying an endorsement of Nader’s presidential campaign, his presence could have introduced the idea that perhaps not only local direct action and agitation, but also independent, coordinated, national political action is necessary to take down these monstrous multinationals.  That instead of Nader-Camejo, The Corporation’scredits and its website gesture to Moveon.org as their sole “democracy in action” link suggests a limited left-political vision indeed.

I don’t want to understate the radical edges of this movie.  More so than Fahren-heit 9/11, The Corporation raises fundamental problems that cannot be answered by supporting corporate-funded candidates or parties (no matter what the film-directors or screen credits may tell you), but only by building forms of independent, anti-corporate political action, on a growing, increasingly mass scale.  As the treatment of dissenters inside as well as outside both the DNC and RNC last summer dramatized, such independent action is something that the Democratic (not to speak of the Republican) establishment seek to control and to co-opt, not to create.

To me, The Corporation suggests the political impotence of establishment solu-tions to the current crisis of corporate domination.  And while the film doesn’t come to any clear conclusions about what is to be done, it does clearly show us how dire is the international need for a political praxis that goes beyond beating the Bush to unearthing, root and branch, the overgrown corporate forest that has produced him (as well as his rather wooden-looking opponent, John Kerry).

Each of the films I have discussed leaves something to be desired, whether from a political or an aesthetic standpoint.  Yet together, these works build an impressively com-prehensive and radical critique of US foreign policy and domestic society, in a dramatic and often entertaining manner.  Though the MEF films may lack the mass appeal of Michael Moore’s work, they too make poignant use of the medium, providing needed development for issues raised—and evaded—in films like F9/11The Corporation meanwhile strikes a powerful new balance between radical education and entertainment.

Hopefully in the coming year, this trend of successful socially critical docu-mentaries and left-docudrama will continue.  Moore’s upcoming work, Sicko (about the state of the US healthcare and insurance industries), as well as the work of Sam Green and Bill Siegel (makers of The Weather Underground) all hold promise.  For 2005 and beyond, filmmakers, viewers, and reviewers alike would do well to bear in mind an updated version of Marx’s most famous Thesis on Feuerbach: film-makers and viewers hitherto have contemplated the world. The point is to change it, even while building an audience big enough for the job.

*Joe Ramsey is a Ph.D. candidate in English and American Literature at Tufts University.  The title of his dissertation-in-progress is “Red Pulp: Radicalism and Repression in U.S. Mass-Popular Fiction 1930s-1960s.”