Three years ago war planners at the Department of Defense were dimming the lights and taking notes on counterinsurgency tactics from Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, the seminal 1965 film about the French army’s iron-fisted response to guerilla warfare in colonial Algeria. But what if there had been a mix-up at the Pentagon on the way to the video store? What if the brass had instead sat down to watch Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974) or Errol Morris’ The Fog of War.? Would these two Academy Award-winning documentaries put the horrors of war, the egos of the men who plan and prolong them, and the immense disconnect between those men and their troops on the ground, in full relief? Does film have any role to play in decreasing the conditions that lead to war and conflict?
“Film can change things,” says David Martinez, independent filmmaker and director of 500 Miles to Babylon, a recent documentary focusing on Iraq before and after the occupation. “We’re at a very media-centric time in our history,” says Martinez, “this is why you see so many video activists running around now, covering social movements, protests, and war. Good film reaches people on an emotional level, in a way that people really respond to. Given that, the challenge is that sometimes being a “video activist” can be an excuse to be a bad filmmaker. It can also be an excuse not to be an activist.”
Martinez toured the States recently with his film, showing to crowds in New York and San Francisco, but primarily touching down in smaller towns and cities (Grand Rapids, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee). “There are a lot of people between the coasts”, says Jen Angel, who coordinated Martinez’ tour and arranges bookings for other independent filmmakers, artists, and media-makers. “My role is to help filmmakers get their films out to an activist audience. I feel like film really does help create social change and there are a lot of great places in the Midwest, in smaller towns, where people are hungry for this kind of media.”
That hunger is starting to look more and more mainstream. The growing clout and commercial success of political documentaries (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11, Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), or even of politicized feature films (think Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic, George Clooney’s Goodnight and Good Luck, and Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now) speaks to a growing audience for film that gives people real information and historical analysis. The exploding number of young filmmakers, videographers, and “video activists” speaks to this as well. While the digital video revolution has exponentially expanded access to cameras and editing software, new forms of distribution have followed apace. Films that don’t have a chance at breaking in to the theater circuit, much less securing airtime on TV, are increasingly reaching audiences thanks to festivals, Netflix, YouTube, and independent networks of distribution and screening.
And there are a few examples of grassroots distribution breaking a film out to a wider audience. After Robert Greenwald’s 2004 documentary Uncovered: The War on Iraq reportedly sold 100,000 DVDs, thanks to thousands of house parties organized by MoveOn.org, theaters across the country started to pick it up. Others point to filmmaker Stephen Marshall’s sale of Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge to Showtime as proof that there are openings, however slim, in the mainstream media façade. These exceptions aside, the TV market remains incredibly prohibitive for film with even a remotely progressive slant, with house parties and tours continuing to fill the gap.