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From Box Office to Ballot Box

With days left until the 2008 presidential election, images are flooding airwaves and video streams, vying for position as the lasting impression conjured just moments before pulling the lever. Perhaps David Bossie’s meticulously edited footage capturing Barack Obama as a radical while rap lyrics issue a chilling call to “paint the White House black.” Or, the network newscast, courtesy of Noshpit Entertainment, set eight years into a McCain administration—where global warming has led to a heat wave in January, health insurance is so scarce that citizens rely on the “Home Surgery Network,” and Osama Bin Laden hosts his own reality show (see video here).

Filmmaking was founded on activism. The past several years have seen a new wave of agitprop, fueled by an increased popularity and attention for the documentary, and other “socially conscious” films. Whether through theatrical release, the festival circuit, or the boom of new online platforms, filmmakers, from the amateur to the Oscar award-winner, are in a unique position to sound off in the national dialogue on electoral politics. From both ends of the political spectrum—be it a Democratic doc or a Republican reeler—filmmakers are weighing in on, perhaps, one of the most significant elections in the history of the American presidency to date.

The 2000 presidential election brought about a renewed concern for electoral politics. As a result, several filmmakers have emerged from the industry’s own horserace to utilize film as a medium for political expression.

Michael Moore has staked his career on controversial documentaries exposing an array of issues from the outsourcing of jobs to gun control and the failures of our healthcare system. Most recently, Slacker Uprising (see trailer here), which Moore released as a free Internet download, offers a direct call to mobilize the vote. While many hail Moore as a critical whistleblower, others deem his antics as a spectacle of propaganda.

Despite political leanings, Moore has struck a nerve inspiring a flurry of right-wing response within an industry traditionally dominated by liberal thought. David Zucker’s release of An American Carol (see trailer here) is a satirical comedy that challenges Moore and the liberal dogma. While heralding “red-state” issues, the film targets a right-wing audience. Similarly, Fireproof, the low-budget feature created by Alex Kendrick about a firefighter’s commitment to his job and faith in his marriage, distinctly speaks to a conservative Christian audience.

Moore’s approach primarily examines a particular issue as it relates and reflects on systematic failures. Yet, in recent years, September 11th, two ensuing wars, natural disasters, and economic failure have fueled filmmakers eager to chime in. With a critical election looming, filmmakers have become screen-to-screen campaigners with their own endorsements—or slander—of political party candidates and have turned to the Internet as an effective arena to disseminate their causes.

At a time when less people are relying on television and print outlets for news, more people are logging on to watch videos, campaign debates, and commercials. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the proportion of Americans who site the Internet as a source for campaign information has more than doubled since 2000.

The Internet, specifically online video, has become a ubiquitous tool. YouTube now garners more traffic than major news websites, Apple’s iTunes has profited millions since its debut, and politically oriented videos have saturated social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Both media and nonprofit activist organizations have tapped into this phenomenon. At the dawn of this year’s presidential race, CNN issued a call for content from filmmakers nationwide, accepting submissions to the iReport Film Festival hosted online. The program features short films ranging from a candidate profile to a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign trail, and all vie for the Grand Jury CNN Audience Award.

Robert Greenwald is a longtime independent filmmaker and political activist behind several left-wing documentaries, most notably, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Greenwald’s new media production company, Brave New Films, billed a “cutting-edge new internet video campaign to challenge corporate media and empower political action,” and launched a series of short political documentaries aired online. Most recently, The Real McCain, is a direct attempt to debunk the character and campaign promises of the presidential hopeful.

Meanwhile, on the right, enter David Bossie, the president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, who has increasingly turned to documentary films to further his cause. His latest contribution, HYPE: The Obama Effect, written and directed by Alan Peterson, seeks to thoroughly debase the presidential candidate as a radical. After producing Hilary: The Movie (see trailerhere). during the lead-in to the Democratic primaries, Bossie’s group quickly switched gears to complete a film on Barack Obama, which premiered on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The film has since been screening in primarily “swing-state” theaters from Ohio to Pennsylvania. It’s primary distribution sales, however, are likely to rely on mail orders with a possible release online.

Testimony to the power of online video sites is the level of direct involvement it has invoked from candidates themselves. The McCain campaign recently contended that YouTube’s takedown policy in effect curbs political speech. Currently videos that are scrapped on the site are largely based on copyright claims issued by media outlets concerned with the use of network clips for partisan aims. While videos posted by supporters of both sides have been flagged, it remains a critical arm of distribution for politically charged content.

While there is less presence of the Republican base online, some former candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, did, for a time, reap their online rewards. However, since Howard Dean burst onto the scene, reeling in support from young people online, the Democratic Party has held close the power of the Internet as a key component of their campaign tactics.

In this year’s election, MoveOn.org joined forces with Academy Award-winners Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Oliver Stone to launch an online contest titled “Obama in 30 Seconds.” As Affleck notes in their press release, the contest provides a platform for supporters “from aspiring filmmakers to armchair pundits, to put Obama over the top and help make history,” with the winning ad set to air on national television. A call to action perhaps as effective as Michael Moore’s, who toured the States offering Ramen Noodles to every slacker who promised to vote.

Moore’s films are politically divisive, yet he has been largely embraced by the independent film industry, collecting dues in festival circuits and theaters nationwide. In 2004, as Moore released Farenheit 9/11, many conservative filmmakers readied their own projects in response. They established new platforms for like-minded creatives such as the American Film Renaissance Festival, founded by Ellen and Jim Hubbard. The annual event aims to “produce, showcase, and distribute films that promote freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit.” Similarly, The Liberty Film Festival was founded July of the same year by Govindini Murty and Jason Apuzzo. Their founding statement sites their commitment to “celebrate patriotism, religious freedom and democracy by providing a forum in the heart of Hollywood for conservative and libertarian filmmakers.”

It’s hard to gain true measure of the impact of filmmakers’ political motivations. On the one hand, if box-office returns on films like An American Carol relative to the blockbuster-status of Michael Moore are an accurate barometer, the religious right does not hold much power as a film-viewing constituency. Still, there must be some acknowledgement of inherent barriers in an industry that has long leaned left of center. Many films never gain an audience despite new forms of distribution and increased access on the Internet.

For years we have fallen back to the age-old concept of movies as an escape from reality that need not mirror our political debates. However, in the past two elections and now in the final days of the Bush Administration, filmmakers have come to define the reach of partisan politics and redefine the boundaries of their craft to last beyond all cinematic endorsements and campaign collateral, beyond November 4th when all ballots have been cast.

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