Documentary or Propaganda? ; the Monitor's Critic Explains How He Evaluates Films That Have Political Agendas
David Sterritt Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Lately I've been hearing from readers who complain I'm not tough enough on political documentaries such as "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Bush's Brain," and "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton."
One e-mailer writes, "I've seen both ["Uncovered: The War on Iraq" and "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism"] and am glad I did. They are interesting and, I think, worth the look - as much as studies in propaganda-light as for what they portray." But, the reader asks, "Subject matter aside, why would the Monitor support such self-servingly one-sided pieces, and allow them to be reviewed on the movie pages?"
It's a fair question, and I'm glad to give my answer - which, like the reviews I write, reflects my own subjective opinions.
A theme for many readers is that such movies aren't "documentaries" but "propaganda," not caring about objective truth. Like the readers who've written to me, I take the meanings of words seriously, so I frequently refresh my memory with dictionary visits. My latest one confirms that "documentary" means "being or consisting of documents," as in "documentary evidence," while "propaganda" is intended "to further one's cause or damage an opposing cause."
It seems to me that all these movies are both. They're documentaries as long as they display real people, places, and events. They're propaganda as long as they are motivated by an ideology or agenda.
I'm one who believes there's no such thing as purely "objective" reporting - on screen, in print, or anywhere else. We all carry perspectives and assumptions in our imperfect human minds, and if some of these seem self-evident or unquestionable, it may be because we don't happen to know anyone who thinks otherwise.
The label "documentary film" was devised in the 1920s by filmmaker John Grierson, who defined it as "the creative treatment of actuality." Even the inventor of the term realized documentaries always blend the "actual" with the "creative," which is inevitably open to interpretation and dispute. …