by Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
108 years ago this week, inventor Thomas Edison received a patent for the Kinetograph, one of the world’s first motion picture cameras. Powered by an electric motor, the camera was capable of shooting high-speed film with great control, setting the stage for the modern of professional filmmaking. From there, movies evolved and expanded fast, and the public soon couldn’t get enough of this new and exciting form of entertainment. Over time, it grew to become a medium of unprecedented power and influence. From shorts to feature length movies, film has been entertaining and enlightening us for over a hundred years. But lately, one particular kind of film-making has been having a larger influence than ever on society: documentaries.
The documentary film has been around ever since the beginning of filmmaking. And while efforts in the late 1800s and early 1900s were, more or less, staged reproductions of “real” events, used mostly for travelogues, the documentary film soon took on the aspect of capturing life as it truly unfolded in the moment, unrehearsed and unplanned. In fact, by the 1940s, they were being used increasingly to incite social change or at least create awareness of important social issues.
Although documentaries have historically not had the respect and popularity that fiction movies have enjoyed, they’ve found growing admiration among the public in the last few decades, thanks to successes like Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me”.
Here are three recent documentaries that demonstrate how film can be used to send a powerful message and push for positive change in the world.
THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)
This film is essentially the story of a man who was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. Randall Adams was a young man who had recently moved to Texas to start a new job and life. One day, when his car runs out of gas on a country road, Adams is picked up and given a ride by David Harris, a troubled 16 year-old teenager, who was driving a stolen car—and carrying a gun. The two spend part of the day together, talking, smoking pot and drinking, and eventually go to a drive-in-movie. But by the evening, things turn violent and tragic.
On their way home, when they are stopped by a police car, someone shoots the officer to death. At the trial, Harris later testified against Adams, claiming he was driving and the gun was his, and Adams was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Errol Morris, a private detective turned documentary film-maker, became interested in the case while in the early stages of working on another film, one about Dr. James Grigson, the psychiatrist who testified that Adams was “an incurable sociopath.” After interviewing Adams, who consistently maintained his innocence, Morris became skeptical that the young man was guilty, and began the project that would be the defining work of his career.
The Thin Blue Line often feels like a documentary “film noir,” filled with sketchy characters, violent criminals, and outright corruption. It’s a sober look at a dark moment in one innocent man’s life, and it demonstrates how quickly an individual’s life can turn from normal and safe to a chaotic, frightening nightmare.
Ultimately, the film and all the publicity it gained led to a reopening of the case, and a reexamination of the evidence. Eventually, Adams’ conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals., and he was freed from prison in 1989. Morris’s film went on to win an Academy Award for best documentary. Years later, it is a film that is still talked about, and serves as a primary example of how documentaries can have a powerful impact on society, and, in some instances, even save lives.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006)
When An Inconvenient Truth was released, it had a powerful impact in countries throughout the world, raising awareness about Climate Change among the public and re-energizing the environmental movement across the globe.
In making the film, Director Davis Guggenheim followed around former Vice President Al Gore, as he traveled the world, presenting important information about how and why our planetary climate systems are changing and our world is warming up. While some critics have attacked the film (mostly political conservatives), Guggenheim’s documentary is undeniably important because it put the subject of Climate Change on the table and made it a topic of serious discussion. In fact, some people have argued that the movie galvanized environmentalists into taking action on a larger scale than ever before.
Since the movie was first released in 2006, many bills to combat climate change have been introduced in the United States Congress, and some of them have actually passed (despite the nation’s chronic political grid-lock). Other countries, especially in Europe, have had even greater success in passing laws to curtail global warming. Many of these countries have taken great strides in employing clean energy sources, such as solar or wind, on a large and ever-growing scale. All of this, it could be argued, is at least partially a result of Guggenheim’s powerful documentary.
With awareness growing among the general populace of the dangers of climate change, individuals, too, are taking action to change their lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint. Though it may not be the last word on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth is definitely the first one, at least in terms of its large-scale cultural and popular impact. The film won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2006, and became the 10th highest grossing documentary in U.S. history.
In the end, if the movie inspires positive action and helps us avert the climate disaster scientists are warning us about, it may well wind up being the most important documentary in film history.
One of the most recent documentaries to take the nation by storm is Blackfish, a film about the dangers and pitfalls of holding wild animals in captivity for entertainment. Over the last 2 years, Blackfish has created a wave of negative publicity for SeaWorld, leading to a number of protests and a dramatic decline in profits for the 50-year old company.
Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, focuses on Tilikum, an orca whale captured in the wild and trained to be a performer at SeaWorld. Over the past 24 years, Tilikum has been involved in the deaths of three people—at three separate facilities. The film argues that Tilikum has become unnaturally aggressive and violent as a result of the frustration of being held in captivity in small tanks for so many years. While SeaWorld argues that the deaths were simply accidents, the film suggests that SeaWorld is deliberately misleading the public.
In this powerful and thought-provoking documentary, Cowperthwaite also raises the question of whether it is moral to hold any wild animal in captivity for a lifetime (especially those as intelligent and as social as whales)—just so they can perform just for our amusement. Cowperthwaite makes her point well, and after watching this film, it’s difficult to argue against her.
Blackfish clearly had a major impact on the public’s perception of SeaWorld. The film raised important and intriguing questions, and there has been a huge backlash against SeaWorld as a result, with a large drop in attendance and profits. In 2014 alone, the company lost more than $20 million.
Reaction to the film also led many music performers, including Pat Benatar, The Beach Boys and Willie Nelson, to cancel planned concerts at the water park. In addition, New York State Senator Greg Ball proposed legislation in New York that bans keeping orcas in captivity. In California, State Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, a bill that would ban entertainment-driven killer whale captivity in his state and retire all current whales.
What the end result of all of this will be, no one can say as of yet. But clearly, Blackfish has raised serious questions about the wisdom of keeping wild orcas (or any wild animals) in captivity against their will. Over the long run, it seems to breed frustration, anxiety, anger, aggression, and violence.
Pictures That Set Us in Motion
As these three films clearly demonstrate, the power of film to raise awareness and change attitudes is nothing short of remarkable. When the message is compelling and the story telling is engaging, films can inspire action, stir debate, open minds, and even save lives.