Agit-Docs

Moviehouses reflect the summer of our discontent

Henry Thomason and Nickolas Perry's The Hunting of the President, an adaptation of the best-seller by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, suggests an extreme "right-wing cabal" conspired with decidedly un-independent counsel Kenneth Starr to unseat President Bill Clinton. But the film's other main target is, says Thomason, "the good old liberal press," which published stories based on unreliable sources or no sources at all and jumped on Monica-gate for the salacious headlines. With the documentary circulating in theaters this June, Thomason hopes the film "can sway a reporter or two to be really fair and balanced," he says, "and not be bullied by the extreme right and their network of AM radio and e-mail."

Other filmmakers have a more pointed goal. Michael Shoob, co-director with Joseph Mealey of Bush's Brain, an investigation into the "dirty tricks" of Republican puppetmaster and alleged "co-president" Karl Rove, says, "Obviously, we wanted to push this information in an election year."

But can docs really rock the vote? "Sometimes films influence events beyond their origin. Sometimes they don't," says nonfiction veteran George Butler (Pumping Iron), who is currently rushing to complete Tour of Duty, a biographical portrait of his longtime friend John Kerry. "Sometimes you make a film like The China Syndrome, which causes all kinds of changes in the nuclear industry, or a film like Pumping Iron, which causes 100,000 gyms to open up in America and eventually makes Arnold [Schwarzenegger] the governor of California."

"If I didn't think documentaries had an impact, I don't think we would make them," says Mark Achbar, co-director of the Noam Chomsky cult film Manufacturing Consent and of this year's festival hit The Corporation, an investigation into globalization and corporate power that has won audience awards at film festivals around the world. "The people are speaking," says Achbar. "Membership in activist groups is shooting up because people come out of [The Corporation] informed, engaged, enraged and ready to put thought into action. There's no question that it has an impact. It's absolutely record-setting in Canada. We even knocked Lord of the Rings off a couple of screens."

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