The term documentary covers a lot of ground, If you look at Box Office Mojo’s list of the most successful documentaries, the top four are Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America.
That list also indicates that documentaries do not have to be somber considerations of big issues; the most recent Oscar winner for documentary feature, the musician-biography Searching for Sugar Man, won over the likes of Invisible War, about rape in the military, and AIDS chronicle How to Survive a Plague.
Still, the documentary has become a major tool in the advocacy of causes; D’Souza’s anti-Obama film was much discussed during election season and, according to Box Office Mojo, is second only to the Moore film among explicit political documentaries.
A couple of examples of advocacy documentaries will be on view this weekend. Girl Rising advocates for the education of women around the world through the stories of nine girls (and voice work by actresses including three Oscar winners). It is associated with the 10X10 campaign aiming, according to the film’s website, “to deliver a simple, critical truth: Educate Girls and you will Change the World.”
The filmmakers invite people to host screenings in their communities; you can find more information at www.girlrising.com about hosting and upcoming screenings. Tickets to shows like the one Friday at the Regal Montrose are sold not through the theater but through the hosts or the website gathr.us.
While Girl Rising was not available for preview, another documentary, Greedy Lying Bastards, was. It opens Friday at Cinemark Valley View and, as the title indicates, it’s a no-holds-barred look at an issue, in this case climate change.
Directed and produced by Craig Rosebraugh, a filmmaker and environmental activist, GLB offers a scathing look at, first, the effects of climate change and then the efforts to deny that climate change exists — efforts that are as well financed as they are scientifically suspect. The documentary is especially rough on self-described experts, noting flaws in their credentials and the way, according to Rosebraugh, their opinions are likely based in who is paying their bills. The major bill-payers in the documentary are ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, the latter well known for their support of conservative causes; Rosebraugh further notes that the tactics used by climate-change deniers are like those used by the tobacco industry when it was fighting evidence that cancer causes smoking.
If, by this point, you are screaming that climate change is a hoax, then GLB is not for you. If you have doubts about it, but are open to argument, the film does argue effectively about the difference between arguments rooted in science and those resting only on rhetorical flourishes, confident presentation and simply repeating denials until they sink deep into the public consciousness. And, if you believe in climate change (as I do), then it’s a passionate declaration of what those GLBs are doing to keep that idea at bay.
That said, GLB’s sledgehammer approach — starting with stark images of natural disasters the film insists are preventable — is not always effective. It works best when laying out the data, both in interviews and in relevant news footage. It works less well when Rosebraugh goes all Michael Moore about the topic, inserting himself into an account that worked fine while he was more on the sidelines; in one of the most Moore-ish moments, Rosebraugh gets into an ExxonMobil meeting and questions a top executive — but too much time is spent setting up that moment, and the answer Rosebraugh gets can be interpreted more generously than the filmmaker does.
Still, as I said, this is advocacy filmmaking. It’s no accident that it ends with a call to action. But that’s an important, and at times inspiring, use of documentary filmmaking.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.