In an article in Slate magazine, I set out to answer the question: Why have the litany of Iraq documentaries had trouble in the conventional marketplace? Whether TV or film, most Iraq docs have struggled to find an audience. And whose fault is it: corporations, the media, you and me? There is, of course, several reasons, ranging from the sheer number of titles to the lack of major institutional support to the apathetic American populace.
What is not in the article, however, is the number of ways that filmmakers are using grassroots ways in which to reach people — whether or not they’re making a significant impact. I talked to a lot of filmmakers for the article, and I felt like it would be a shame not to share some of their strategies and thoughts (from my first draft) with an audience. So here you go…
Robert Greenwald, who has masterminded the grassroots approach with the release of agit-docs such as “Outfoxed” and “WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price,” is employing the same model with his latest project, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.” With the help of liberal partners like MoveOn, Greenwald’s legions are holding, by his estimation, 1,500-1,600 screenings at house parties and community centers across the country from Oct 8-14, as part of their “Patriotism over Profit” week.
Focus Features is following the same model, even hiring a former Greenwald employee, Lisa Smithline, to run its grassroots campaign for Patricia Foulkrod’s “The Ground Truth,” which is also currently holding grassroots screenings across the country.
“If the goal is social change, then there’s absolutely no question that alternative distribution is the only way to go,” says Greenwald, touting the ability to reach audiences much quicker than conventional distribution routes and tap all types of audiences at free screenings. “There is no possibility that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is going to pay $8 to see your movie,” he says. And with his videos funded by small and large donors, Greenwald doesn’t need to make a profit. “You have to measure your results in terms of political action,” he says, “not by every dollar at the box office.”
Foulkrod agrees. “I don’t think the question is how many people are watching,” she says. “I think the question is who is watching.” At emotional screenings around the country, she has witnessed crying mothers aching for their children soldiers and Republican men opening up to the problems of the war. “Like the rest of this country, I want quick results,” says Foulkrod. “But I don’t think you can see what’s happening when you’re in the middle of it. We forget how long Vietnam was.”
Dan Lohaus, director of “When I Came Home,” which chronicles the plight of homeless Iraq veterans, doesn’t have distribution for his film, but continues to take it to film festivals, and plans to work with the Center for American Progress to hold screenings around Veterans Day. “The last thing I’m going to do is sit on the film and wait for a distribution deal,” he says. “The mission is to get Iraq veterans who are homeless off the street and we’re going to keep pushing.”
Best of luck to all of them.