Documentary, Polemic, and Propaganda

Film Classification and the Public Missive about the Planned Parenthood Videos

Reposted from with the author’s permission - JB

Let me start with a deliberately provocative statement.

Michael Moore doesn’t make documentaries. He produces polemics.

And there’s nothing essentially wrong with that, except that a failure to know the difference is dangerous and leads to things like the current videos being used to attack Planned Parenthood.

Let me explain how I see the difference.

A “documentary” carries with it a suggestion of a reasonable degree of impartiality. It suggests journalism, as objective as possible in service of explanation, not argument. A polemic is a deliberate use of carefully selected evidence in the narrow service of a particular point of view. It isn’t reportorial journalism, it isn’t even really even editorial journalism, which is intended to develop reasoned arguments to stimulate reasoned debate. It’s commentary with the intent of distorting the debate toward a singular conclusion.

Of course, all film presents a filmmaker’s perspective and biases. Andy Warhol’s 8-hour cult film, “Sleep,” would seem to be the perfectly objective documentary. It simply sets up a camera and films a man who comes to bed, sleeps, and wakes. But we can find meaning, and clues to the auteur’s purpose, in his choices about camera placement, focus, lighting, mattress and bedclothes, other furnishings and so forth.

In contrast, the famous scene in Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” in which Moore confronts NRA President Charlton Heston is a clear and deliberate set-up. It’s a trap. When Heston walks away at the end of the sequence, his physical difficulties make it look as though he is skulking away, suggesting not just guilt, but cowardice. When Moore places the photo of the child gunfire victim in front of Heston’s home he isn’t documenting, he isn’t presenting relevant facts about the controversy; he is making an emotional appeal as an argument for his own point of view.

Similarly, but more egregiously, the producers of the Planned Parenthood videos not only edited in order to highlight the points of their argument, they deliberately and deceptively changed the facts and the context of those facts in order to bias the argument and reach pre-determined conclusions. Where Moore is upfront about his purpose (no one would ever mistake Moore’s personal position on guns) and about the cinematic devices he is using to make his argument, the video producers want the audience to believe it is unmanipulated fact and unvarnished truth.

And people do believe that. And that is where the danger lies.

The “undercover sting video” deliberately obscures the line between fact and truth. On a purely technical basis, we can call the statements and discussions in the videos facts. The things that we see happening did happen. The people saying those things did say those things. Those are arguably facts. And the people generally believe that a fact and a truth are the same thing. I argue that they are not.

A fact exists. It is not dependent on our knowledge of it, our use of it, or the meaning we derive from it. It is not subject to our perspective. When we debate facts, we are really debating whether things have been properly perceived, not whether they exist. Truth, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on perception. Truth is personal. Truth requires argument and persuasion, not just presentation. That’s because different people will perceive, catalog, select and combine facts in different ways, leading to different truths. Simply looking at the facts presented in Moore’s film and then looking at those and additional facts in other sources, reasonable people might arrive at different truths.

But there is a strong tendency for all of us to believe that raw facts are the truth. We saw it with our own eyes, we heard it with our own ears; it must be true. In making that assumption, we ignore the impact of our own biases and perceptions, we ignore the impact of context, we ignore the inherent bias of sources; and we make ourselves vulnerable to the manipulation of those who would use our misconceptions to further their own agendas; from infomercials to politically motivated hatchet jobs.

It is part of the convention of fiction films (even those “based on a real story”) that the audience knows they are being manipulated. The audience is asked to accept that the reality of the film is manipulated; to understand that the filmmaker has a point of view and a purpose; and to enter into the manipulated reality and judge the film based on its internal truth. But documentary filmmaking promises something different and asks something different of its audience. The documentary filmmaker wants his audience to see the film as based in the same reality that exists outside the film as inside it. As an audience, we are asked to judge the film based on its adherence to external reality. But we are hampered in that in two ways. First, there is no reliable external reality, no universal perception on which we can base our judgments. We can only rely on our own perceptions of both the film and the reality; and for help with that we tend to go to sources that express shared aspects of that reality. Second, the content of the film – the filmmaker’s selection of ideas and images, the structure of the film, our tendency to suspend disbelief in favor of the facts being presented – has already moved us (if it is a successful film) toward a particular truth, which will agree or disagree with the filmmaker’s intent.

Good documentary filmmakers know this. Ken Burns loves national parks, baseball, and American history. We know that going in. His documentaries are asking us to enter into his love and enjoyment of these things and see them from his perspective. We can agree or disagree with some of what he is saying, but still enjoy and appreciate his work. Michael Moore expects us to agree or disagree with him, and to do so passionately. That’s his point. If we don’t know that going in, then we are deceiving ourselves, not being deceived by Moore. People who produce things like the CMP videos are producing fiction in the guise of objective of objective reality. They are, in short, liars and manipulators and should be condemned as such.

We can certainly argue which films belong in the category, but the term “propaganda” is too little used. The general media discussion of these videos has tended to call them documentaries, whenever they categorize them at all. We should be arguing that they are actually propaganda films. The term has been given an unnecessary negative connotation. We should revive it as an objective term to describe films that deliberately manipulate information in deceptive and highly selective ways in order to unfairly or irrationally attack or defend something. Then we can apply the standards of propaganda to properly understand the films. The general population understands that propaganda is manipulative and distorted. Knowing that a film is propaganda gives them the proper platform from which to judge it, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with it.