DOCUMENTARIANS BEHAVING BADLY
PROPAGANDA AS DOCUMENTARY
Some documentaries (eg Michael Moore’s new film, Sicko) are more accurately
described as propaganda; there is no reason why such a category shouldn’t exist,
so audiences could be better prepared for the unreliability of their content and
genuine documentaries could avoid being lumped in with the propaganda, writes
Andrew L. Urban.
If we can’t trust a documentary to be truthful (within reasonable boundaries)
what’s the point of it? While some documentaries tackle subjects which defy
scientific authority (eg global warming on which scientists still tend to
disagree), we don’t expect documentarians to knowingly present what is false in
the guise of fact. Documentaries which fail that test should be relegated to the
propaganda bin; they can even vie for an award – THE BIG WHOPPER, say. The lines
may be blurred sometimes, as in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935),
in which she presents the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg rally; she doesn’t invent
anything, but the film’s tone is clearly propaganda, if for no other reason than
the omission of the ugly side of Nazism – the intention to annihilate Jews.
Surely that was relevant.
Moore has actually taken audio of seven sentences, from five different parts of the speech, and a section given in a different speech entirely, and spliced them together. Each edit is cleverly covered by inserting a still or video footage for a few seconds.
First, right after the weeping victims, Moore puts on Heston's "I have only five words for you . . . cold dead hands" statement, making it seem directed at them. As noted above, it's actually a thank-you speech given a year later in North Carolina.
Moore then has an interlude -- a visual of a billboard and his narration. This is vital. He can't go directly to Heston's real Denver speech. If he did that, you might ask why Heston in mid-speech changed from a purple tie and lavender shirt to a white shirt and red tie, and the background draperies went from maroon to blue. Moore has to separate the two segments.”
3. FAHRENHEIT 9/11
I am prompted to briefly explore this subject in the aftermath of Cannes 2007,
where Michael Moore, previous Palme d’Or winner (2004) for Fahrenheit 9/11, was
feted with his new film, Sicko, a critical view of the American health system.
With its absence of universal health care and its unaffordability for the poor,
goodness knows that system deserves a decent, strong documentary. But in Sicko,
Moore pulls a silly stunt by going to Cuba and presenting that country’s health
system as gold class, much superior to the US system.
The man can’t seem to help himself and he’s again playing loose with the truth,
says Rich Lowry, editor of National Review & columnist with the New York Post.
Extracts from Lowry’s article of May 22, 2007:
“Is all that ails the U.S. health-care system that it’s not run by a Communist
dictatorship? That has long been a premise of apologists for Fidel Castro who
extol the virtues of medical care on his totalitarian island nation.
Cuban health care works only for the select few: if you are a high-ranking
member of the party or the military and have access to top-notch clinics; or a
health-care tourist who can pay in foreign currency at a special facility
catering to foreigners; or a documentarian who can be relied upon to produce a
lickspittle film whitewashing the system.
Ordinary Cubans experience the wasteland of the real system. Even aspirin and
Pepto-Bismol can be rare, and there’s a black market for them. According to a
report in the Canadian National Post: “Hospitals are falling apart, surgeons
lack basic supplies and must reuse latex gloves. Patients must buy their sutures
on the black market and provide bed sheets and food for extended hospital
But the routine medical care, we’re supposed to believe, is superb. The
statistic frequently cited for this proposition is that Cuba has the lowest
infant mortality rate in Latin America. Put aside that the reflexively dishonest
Cuban government is the ultimate source for these figures. Cuba had the lowest
infant mortality rate in Latin America prior to the revolution and has lost
ground to other countries around the world since. It also has an appallingly
high abortion rate, meaning most problem pregnancies are pre-emptively ended.
As is always the case with Cuba, anything that’s wrong is blamed on the United
States. If there is a shortage of medicine, well, that’s because of the U.S.
embargo. But the United States is not the only country in the world that sells
drugs. Cuba could buy them from Europe or elsewhere, and the U.S. embargo makes
an exception for medicines.”
Sadly, Sicko is only the latest in Moore’s body of work that discredits genuine
2. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
Tucson attorney David T. Hardy deconstructs Moore’ Bowling for Columbine (2002)
in extensive and devastating detail,
as he accuses Moore of blatant lies throughout the film. “Michael Moore's
Bowling for Columbine won the Oscar for best documentary.” He goes on to echo
the point of this article in his own words: “Unfortunately, it is not a
documentary, by the Academy's own definition. The injustice here is not so much
to the viewer, as to the independent producers of real documentaries. These
struggle in a field which receives but a fraction of the recognition and
financing of the ‘entertainment industry.’ They are protected by Academy rules
limiting the documentary competition to nonfiction.
Bowling is fiction. It makes its points by deceiving and by misleading the
viewer. Statements are made which are false. Moore leads the reader to draw
inferences which he must have known were wrong. Indeed, even speeches shown on
screen are heavily edited, so that sentences are assembled in the speaker's
voice, but which were not sentences he uttered. Bowling uses deception as its
primary tool of persuasion and effect.”
One specific extract from Hardy’s analysis:
“Heston's "cold dead hands" speech, which leads off Moore's depiction of the Denver meeting, was not given at Denver after Columbine. It was given a year later in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was his gesture of gratitude upon his being given a handmade musket, at that annual meeting. When Bowling continues on to the speech which Heston did give in Denver, it carefully edits it to change its theme.
High profile American author (eg God Is Not Great, published May 2007),
journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens wrote a scathing attack on Michael
Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (slate.com, June 21, 2004). “To describe this film as
dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of
respectability.” He goes on to discredit the contents of 9/11 as “a sinister
exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It
is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a
demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.”
As Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute and prior Adjunct
Professor of Law at New York University, writes, “To manipulate people with
frauds and propaganda is to attack democracy itself.”
From Kopel’s famous 59 Deceits (of Fahrenheit 9/11), here are just two:
24. Moore claims that the Saudis “own 7% of America.” But even if you believe
Unger’s fictitious $860 billion figure, the Saudis own only about 7% of total
foreign investment in America, which is over $10 trillion. Only if all of
America were owned by foreigners could Moore’s claim be correct.
31. The Bush administration did not “welcome” Taliban diplomats in March 2001,
but instead condemned them for failing to hand over Osama bin Laden.
4. ROGER & ME
Manufacturing Dissent, by husband & wife team of Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine,
turns the camera on Michael Moore and examines some of his methods. Among the
revelations in the movie (which had its world premiere in March 2007 at the
South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas), is that Moore actually did
speak with then-General Motors chairman Roger Smith, the evasive subject of his
1989 debut Roger & Me, but chose to withhold that footage from the final cut.
The husband-and-wife directors – long time fans of Moore - spent over two years
making Manufacturing Dissent. "It was shocking, because to me that was the whole
premise of Roger & Me,” Melnyk said.
5. BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND
Unfortunately, Moore is not alone in guiding a film to support his own political
agenda. In our own backyard, celebrated Australian documentarian David Bradbury
has also been found wanting.
The thrust of Bradbury’s documentary, Blowin’ In the Wind (2005), was roundly
discredited by the Australian Defence Force, then Opposition Leader Kim Beazley
and Queensland Health (according to reports in The Weekend Australian (November
26/27, 2005) who all rebutted the film’s central claims that depleted uranium
was used by the US military at the Shoalwater Bay defence training area near
Rockhampton and that this has resulted in birth defects.
The denials by the ADF were not included in Bradbury’s film, and Queensland
Health showed figures that birth defects were noted in 7 of 255 births in the
local area, a rate of 2.7%, well below the State average of 3.6%. This
information – which totally contradicts the filmmaker’s accusation - is not
included in the film.
Published May 31, 2007
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Michael Moore – improperganda
David Bradbury – rebutted