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, 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.

Other filmmakers are intervening to bridge the larger political and cultural gaps between societies exacerbated by the Bush administration’s “war on terror”. Take Make Films Not War, a new initiative aimed at bringing filmmakers together with human rights advocates, diplomats, academics, and others to create non-violent alternatives to armed conflict and resist the drive to war. The campaign was born of fire, literally, when Brazilian filmmaker Iara Lee, the project’s primary mover and shaker, found herself in a crowd running for cover as Israeli bombs began raining down on Beirut this past summer. “I was here during the bombing and it was awful,” says Lee in a telephone interview from Beirut. “I was battling so many feelings of rage and impotence, and I wanted to channel it in a productive way.”

After the war Lee quickly mobilized the resources of the Gund-Lee Foundation (George Gund, owner of the San Jose, California Sharks hockey team and long-time supporter of independent film, is co-chair of the effort). The campaign’s first project was to underwrite the nearly derailed Beirut International Film Festival in October, which went on despite the damage done to Lebanon’s infrastructure. Festival organizers led “reality” tours of the bombed-out capital to supplement outdoor film screenings and concerts that brought a cultural reprieve to war-weary residents of Beirut. The foundation also supported the DocuDays Film Festival in Beirut in November, focusing on documentary film in the Arab world. A Conflict Zone Film Fund has been set up to support collaborative projects between filmmakers from opposing sides of a given conflict (e.g. Israel and Palestine, US and Iraq, India and Pakistan), and the organization is collecting footage from filmmakers around the world, with a goal of producing a feature film. That film will be “a collaborative cinematic collage about the myriad ways in which people are opposing war, oppression, and corporate-led globalization in their everyday lives,” according to the group’s website.

“What this group is doing is extremely important, and not surprising. Filmmakers have been on the front lines working to break the airtight seal around information coming out of the Middle East,” says Avi Lewis, Canadian filmmaker (The Take) and host of CBC’s The Big Picture with Avi Lewis, in which polemical documentary films are screened for a studio audience, followed by freewheeling debate and dialogue. “Film, especially documentary film that provides real information with real human narratives and voices, works on so many different levels. If it can break in to the mainstream by deepening politics, by getting people to argue in a refreshing way, as opposed to becoming a sophisticated political campaign that offers a prefab solution, film can transform peoples’ lives. I’ve seen it happen.”

But can film transform the lives of the power brokers and
the saber rattlers in Washington? Are those who stubbornly insulate
themselves from the so-called reality-based community at all reachable
by a dose of, well, reality?

“It’s part of taking baby steps, first filmmakers, then world leaders,” says Iara Lee. “Film is an efficient medium. It is a lot easier to get people in front of a screen than to get them to read a 300-page book. We want to go beyond preaching to the converted. To do that you have to capture people’s attention.”