Few names are as synonymous with documentary film making than that of Michael Moore. Mr Moore’s often controversial and confrontational style has seen the factual entertainment genre reinvigorated over the past 20 years with his unique sense of sarcasm and irony. Renowned for his left-wing political stance, Moore has directed four of the top eight highest-grossing documentaries of all time (Box Office Mojo, 2010). With an undeniable political agenda to each of these box office successes, the following assignment will assess whether Moore’s work crosses into the notion of propaganda and the moral/ethical issues that have arisen as a result of this. The assignment will also discuss the notion of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ propaganda and ultimately define what constitutes both. In order to achieve this, the debate will utilise Michael Moore’s break through hit Roger and Me (1989) as a framework and compare and contrast his work with two varying pieces of propaganda; Housing Problems (1935) and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934).
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Kelman (2003) notes that propaganda is an art which seeks to achieve certain specific emotional effects, to manifest a vision of the world compellingly. Therefore since propaganda is concerned with influencing attitudes toward life in a given time and place, and indeed in terms of specific events and people, its objective will always be to influence the viewer on particular ideologies. The term ‘ideology’ is one that will often be referred to throughout this assignment; it is a notoriously elusive concept that resists easy definition. However, in order to gain a clear understanding of ideology, some of its basic characteristics can be identified by looking briefly at the theoretical and historical development of the concept. According to its popular definition, ideology refers to the ideas, attitudes, values, belief systems or interpretive and conceptual frameworks held by members of a particular social group (Geuss, 1981). Ideology is thus defined as the assumptions according to which individuals, groups or societies conceptualise the values and beliefs that express their culture (Dupre, 1983). It is therefore evident that both ideology and propaganda are both concepts that are inextricably linked as propaganda is arguably a system in which the intellectual elites have employed as a means to transmit their favoured ideologies to the masses (Fourie, 2001).
One such documentary that exemplifies this point is that of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), which chronicles the Nazi Party’s rallies in Nuremberg in 1934. Riefenstahl’s cinematic masterpiece notably revolutionised the way propaganda would be produced and its influence can still be seen today. In the words of Kelman (2003) “[it is a] true documentary, completely made up of “actual” footage-the ultimate in incontrovertible credibility”. Despite being entirely structured with the use of ‘actual’ footage, the documentary contains a profound right-wing undercurrent as it promotes the idea of a resurrected Germany to its ancient heroism through the power of one man, Adolf Hitler, the Führer. The documentary begins with Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg and continues through processions and rallies, before ending with the Führer’s final address. Kelman (2003) states that “to fuse such truth with such propaganda, compromising neither, Riefenstahl creates a unique cinema: a cinema which transfigures real life while apparently recording it; which is essentially avant-garde while ostensibly conventional”. Despite this statement appearing somewhat contradictory in that a text can be both avant-garde and conventional, it is in fact accurate as Triumph of the Will’s (1934) narrative structure is rather conservative in that events proceed according to strict chronological order. However, apart from music, nothing is indeed added to the events and so Riefenstahl’s true innovation lies in the fact that she transmits ‘her message’ via the unobtrusive manipulation of standard cinema devices such as camera shots and editing. Riefenstahl states however that her intention was merely to capture the event as it happened in the style of cinema vérité, rather than to produce a piece of Nazi propaganda:
If you see this film again today you ascertain that it doesn’t contain a single reconstructed scene. Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-vérité. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film (Cheshire, 2000).
With this in mind, one could therefore argue that Triumph Of The Will (1934) can be seen to symbolise the Nazi ethos of the time, which reflects the view that Riefenstahl was an artist whose personal preoccupations were primarily artistic and technical, not political, but that her films were manipulated by Hitler and the Nazi party for their own political agenda (Cheshire, 2000). Regardless of Riefenstahl’s intentions, the influence of Triumph of the Will (1934) as a persuasive tool is all too clear.
If successful propaganda such as Triumph of the Will (1934) can hold the power for immense evil then surely by all logic, one could argue that propaganda must also have the ability to achieve great good. This is corroborated by Bateman (1992) whom suggests that documentaries can indeed produce a ‘positive’ effect on public opinion. This notion of a positive influence on public agenda is essentially one that offers an ideological stand point which undermines the notion that propaganda is simply a tool used by the powerful in society as a means of oppression. Therefore ‘positive propaganda’ can arguably be attributed as a text that seeks to reverse the sense of a false consciousness within society which has been installed by the rich and powerful as a way to distort public knowledge and employ favoured ideologies. One such film that paved the way for the said approach is the 1935 British documentary Housing Problems, a short piece of optimistic propaganda that exemplified “what [had] been done to improve living conditions by the most ‘enlightened’ local authorities and planners, and [provided] an exhortation [for] others to follow suit” (Birchall, 2010). From a technical perspective, Housing Problems’ (1935) true originality lies in the use of narration and anecdotal evidence of the working class men and women who featured within the film. This was done in order to demonstrate the dreadful conditions in the slums and ultimately, the benefit of the new estates. In many ways, Housing Problems (1935) shares numerous similarities to Triumph of the Will (1934) however its use of ‘staged’ moments is far less subtle nonetheless both documentaries ultimately promote the idea of ‘change’ within their respective contexts. Other similarities can be drawn when noting Vladimir Propp’s (cited by Nichols, 2001) character theory which claims that each narrative must contain a protagonist to drive the text. For instance Triumph of the Will’s (1934) ‘hero’ is undeniably Hitler as he is promoted “as a prophet” (Kelman, 2003) whilst Housing Problems (1934) is perhaps more understated, with the hero being the “enlightened local authorities and planners” (Birchall, 2010)
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Thus far, the debate has analysed propaganda within the documentary movement of the 1930’s, however similarities in both theme and production can also be drawn to modern feature movies which Bateman (1992) states can also help shape and reflect public opinion. Nimmo & Combs (1992) further this claim by declaring that films are said to represent the status of the American dream, whether characterized by belief or doubt, optimism or pessimism. This statement could be attributed to the film, Roger & Me (1989), which was highly critical of General Motors and the fact that tens of thousands of factory workers were made redundant in Flint, Michigan. Michael Moore’s reflection of the American dream in Roger and Me (1989) is one that clearly opposes that of the dominant capitalist ideology. Moore quickly establishes a key to the narrative in that we are asked to identify with the victims of oppression. As Orvell (2008) states “Moore’s Roger and Me shuns the tradition of observational documentary and opts instead for a more complex rhetoric, a hybridization of the interactive and the reflexive modes to a level of significant social commentary”. By addressing the authority of those making the decisions, Moore turns the tables on the conventional documentary form as the man himself serves as a symbol for the powerless worker. By holding Roger Smith up as a villain, Moore makes a devastating point about democracy in that the powerful simply do not have to speak to us, they owe us nothing. In essence, Moore wishes to highlight this issue by putting himself forward as the ‘saviour’ whom the rich and powerful must acknowledge as he is the voice of a work force that is willing to fight against injustice and the corrupt. The documentary therefore exposes the moral failures of the powerful by placing them before the camera’s deadpan gaze, accompanied by Moore’s own disarmingly ingenuous interlocutory style. When Moore confronts Roger Smith at the General Motors Christmas party and asks ‘Will you come to Flint and see the evictions that are going on as a result of GM’s plant closings?’ the audience are subject to an anticlimax, a reiteration of the film’s underlying theme about the powerful and the powerless.
A clear comparison can therefore be drawn to all three documentaries in that they all provide easily identifiable character roles that structure each narrative. Therefore despite each documentary displaying attributes that categorise it differently; Housing Problems – Expository, Triumph of the Will – Observational and Roger and Me – Participatory (Nichols, 2001), each text, though based in fact, can be described as propaganda as they make a deliberate attempt to change the target’s perceptions, cognitions, and behaviour in ways that further the objective of the propagandist.
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