The Public Humanist

Can Documentaries Change the World?

In the late 1970s Jimmy Carter was president, disco was in its death throes, wide lapels were all the rage, and I was a post-hippy child-lawyer living in wet and wild Portland, Oregon. I had moved there from western Massachusetts to take a job as a Legal Services attorney and life was sweet. I had good friends, a cozy, somewhat moldy rental house, and a challenging job that paid poorly. I was happy.

The innocence of youth rarely survives the slide into maturity. In spite of the halcyon Oregon atmosphere I started to become frustrated with the glacial pace of the law. Legal Services lawyers fight daily battles against landlords and government agencies, but the underlying problems rarely change. Suits we brought to change the law would take years to reach the higher courts; I wanted action and I wanted it fast.

Action was happening back east as the anti-nuclear power movement was building up a head of steam. The Clamshell Alliance was mounting massive protests at the site of the proposed Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire. Clamshell organizers came to Portland to tell us about it. Their visual aid was a one-hour documentary called “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War.” Activist Sam Lovejoy, unhappy with plans for a nuclear power plant in Montague, Massachusetts, had cut the guy wires for a weather tower at the proposed site. Then he nonchalantly turned himself in to the police. It was a daring act of civil disobedience and the film gave Lovejoy and his cohort a platform to spread their message.

I watched “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War” inspire an audience of over one hundred twenty-somethings into action. Within moments of the final credits organizers had galvanized volunteers to march on the St. Helen’s Nuclear Power plant in nearby Washington State. I had been working on legal cases that would take years to resolve and may have never had any impact. Here was a film that changed people’s lives in a mere hour. Clearly I was in the wrong profession.

I returned to western Massachusetts to join Florentine Films, a documentary company that was just getting started and I plunged into my first film, “The Old Quabbin Valley,” * about the battle over diverting sullied Connecticut River water into the pristine waters of the Quabbin Reservoir. It took me three years of fundraising, filming and editing to complete the production and when it was done it became an organizing tool, just as I had hoped. Eventually Massachusetts passed laws to prevent diversions of water from one region to another and I am proud to think the film had a little something to do with that. It was a while before I realized that the time necessary to produce and distribute the film was about the same, if not longer, than the length of a lawsuit. By then it was too late; I had been infected with the film disease and I’ve never been cured.

About seven years after we finished “The Old Quabbin Valley” Errol Morris released his famous film, “The Thin Blue Line.” The documentary tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood in November, 1976. Morris revealed the faults in the prosecution’s case and the publicity around the film resulted in Adams eventual release from prison.

“The Thin Blue Line” was not the first documentary to expose injustice; CBS White Papers, such as “Harvest of Shame” and “The Battle of Newburgh” were having an impact as far back as the 1960s. But Morris broke away from the journalistic approach of network television and established a new genre. Using hyper-real re-recreations, a haunting music track by Phillip Glass, and a direct eye-to-eye interviewing technique, Morris created a documentary with feature-film appeal. It was, perhaps, the first documentary noir and it has been imitated ever since. I remember it because of its creative film style; I revere it because it helped get an innocent man out of prison.

Can documentaries do more than save individuals or make small changes in policy? “An Inconvenient Truth,” garnered its producers an Academy Award and huge audiences. It seems to have raised consciousness worldwide about the dangers of global warming. Yet the use of petroleum products proceeds unabated and the temperature keeps rising.

A year after Michael Moore’s “Sicko” played around the country he was interviewed about its impact. A depressed Moore admitted that he had made some of the highest grossing films in documentary history yet, he complained, not much had seemed to change. Autoworkers in his home town of Flint, Michigan are still out of work, gun sales are still on the rise, we still don’t have a fair and affordable health care system.

Can a documentary change the world? Not any more than a book or article or speech or demonstration. It’s more likely a reflection of a movement that’s already happening. On rare occasions it’s more of a tributary carrying water toward a river that needs an increase in flow. Or perhaps the better metaphor is a loud voice contributing to a chorus, whose volume eventually allows it to be heard.

By the way, I got to know Sam Lovejoy a little bit after I returned to Western Massachusetts. He told me that in order to be a more effective activist he was going back to school. The last I heard he had become a lawyer.

*Sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

© 2014 The Valley Advocate