Back to IndieWire Weighs in on the Political Documentary Weighs in on the Political Documentary Weighs in on the Political Documentary

by Sandra Ogle

Jehane Noujaim (left) gave her input on the “political documentary” on last week. She is pictured here with the producer of her film “Control Room,” Rosadel Varela, earlier this year at New Directors/New Films series in New York. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

In light of recent successes of political documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Supersize Me,” “Control Room,” and “The Corporation,”, a discussion site hosted by UTNE independent culture magazine, held a weeklong forum to discuss the ethics and business behind political documentaries today. Academy Award-winner Pamela Yates, director of “Witness to War” and “Presumed Guilty,” and “Control Room” director Jehane Noujaim were the forum’s special guests and any registered member of D-word was allowed to contribute. The frame for the discussion centered on the definition of a political doc, but often the discussion turned into intriguing tangents concerning the dearth of right-wing political docs, whether the currency of political documentaries will eventually go bankrupt, and how to measure the success of a film when its political intentions are hard to articulate.


Yates, erudite and concise in her statements, immediately grounded the recent political doc explosion historically. She wrote, “If you look at the history of US political documentaries over the past 70 years, they are most popular, most effective when the country is in crisis — the Film and Photo League in the 1930s and 1940s, Newsreel in the 1960s, and the current resurgence — all at times of global paradigm shifts and war.”

Brooklyn Rail contributor, Williams Cole, wrote that the difference between the political doc in this current cycle of historical crisis is that these films are getting incredible commercial distribution and becoming part of movie-goers’ vernacular. He also added, “When profit margins are there suddenly executives start to look at whatever is making that happen.”

So if the recent interest in political docs by filmmakers and audiences is contingent upon the current political state in America, its currency will eventually be considered less valuable and will once again teeter out of popularity. Forum moderator Doug Block questioned whether or not interest in political docs is an “aberration because there’s now a sizeable niche market for them (the fervent anti-Bushies) that will disappear overnight after the elections in November.”

Block was not alone, as another poster also questioned whether there will be an interest in political docs after the elections. Yates responded to their inquiries by writing that filmmakers have to keep making documentaries that are compelling, engaging, and entertaining, and that the anti-Bush/ant-right have to keep up a united momentum for change for interest to stay peaked.

Right-Wing Political Docs

The dearth of right-wing documentaries in the market was also a point of discussion in the forum. One poster, Andres De Tella, offered this explanation. “They (the right) have 24-hour wall-to-wall programming in the major networks of most countries in the world. They don’t need little independent documentaries.” Along similar lines, contributor Mike Green felt that, “The right has concentrated it’s money in mainstream media and talk radio [with] small sound-bites and talking points relentlessly delivered.”

The tide may be turning, however. Later in the discussion, Yates pointed to the recent CPB announcement of a new $20 million dollar initiative for independent producers, called “America at the Crossroads” (, as an indication that the right is becoming more interested in making political documentaries. “Its mission is essentially to do what other programming initiatives in the PBS system already do — Frontline, Frontline/World, and Wide Angle — but from the right.” She added that 8,000 people have already applied for the money.

Definitions of Political Docs

The definitions of the term “political documentary” in the discussion were less conclusive than explanations about the current success of the films in the marketplace. Often, contributors swayed between whether pol docs were to inform and educate or to sway fence sitters or both. Noujaim had a loose explanation of how her film, “Control Room,” entered the genre of “political documentary.”

“Our film became a political doc because it raised so many political questions. I would never have been able to enter the process with a political agenda… finding characters to fit that agenda. That is uninteresting to me, because I wouldn’t feel like I was leaving the filmmaking up to chance.” In the rest of her explanation, Noujaim leaned away from saying that a political doc must have a specific point of view set in place before filming and underlined the fluid, evolutionary nature of documentary filmmaking instead.

Pamela Yates gave a rather loose definition at first — “All political documentaries are about social issues, but not all social issue themed films are political documentaries” — but then went on to give a more qualifying explanation. “When I’m describing political documentaries, I’m talking about films that are engaged with the politics or policies of a government or institution or groups in a society. The films are often critical, always questioning, sometimes explaining, often bringing a hidden reality to the fore.”

William Gazecki, director of the documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” felt that, on a certain level, all social concerns can be considered “political,” but there is a certain type of documentary that is truly suited for the term “political.” He gave his aforementioned film on the Waco incident as an example that distinction.

Measuring Success of a Pol Doc

Forum contributors also weighed in with their opinions on how they think success of a political documentary can be measured. Yates’s film partner Peter Kinoy wrote, “Measuring the success of a political documentary film is a very tricky thing, since by its very nature it implies a complex relationship with social movements that in themselves are often difficult to evaluate or get a clear grasp of.”

He wrote that success could be “planting some seed of consciousness in a single person who will go on to become a leader and make progressive breakthroughs” or the film can be successful when it plays “a more immediate and active role in rallying the troops, as it were, to push forward some pressing agenda.”

In the discussion, Yates gave real life examples of how documentaries have created change. She mentioned how “The Murder of Emmett Till” reopened the Emmett Till case after 50 years and how “The Thin Blue Line” got Randall Adams released from death row.

From inspiring political activism and grass root movements to box office tallies, the success of a political documentary can be measured in wholly different ways. But, as seen from the definition above, the often malleable definition will continue to evolve with time. “The fact is when we make these films they go out and lead a life of their own. Like children, we create them, but they have their own life force,” Yates wrote.

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