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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

The Rest of the Story

Activist documentaries have taken the place of investigative TV journalism.



Have you watched the news lately'your local 11 o’clock broadcast, a national cable network, whatever? Did you learn more about Paris Hilton’s legal woes and which team made the NBA playoffs than about real issues that impact you as an American?

Real journalism in the visual medium has all-but-disappeared from television in recent years. Outrage at authority and at the status quo are, however, showing up in movies'in theaters sometimes, but more frequently as direct-to-DVD films sold directly to … well, the angry, the informed, and those who want to be informed.

There’s Maxed Out, for one, which played in theaters briefly in limited release earlier this year and arrives on DVD on June 5 (you can also find a same-named companion book). Director James D. Scurlock’s antidote to all the upbeat economic news with which the mainstream media bombards us'Stock market up! Corporate earnings up!'is a dispiriting exposé of predatory lending scams that mislead even smart, educated people and a credit-card industry that is designed, with full approval of the U.S. government, to work against the ordinary consumer. Flying lower under the radar is In Debt We Trust: America Before the Bubble Bursts, a recent release from the progressive Web site/media company Far more rebellious than Scurlock, Danny Schechter here casts an even wider net across the sea of instability just barely breaching the surface of the American economy'Foreclosures up! Bankruptcy “reform” hurts everyone except big business!'to show how deeply the American middle- and lower-class is at the mercy of major banking corporations, and how the bottom must inevitably fall out.

Pick a hot topic, and there’s more than one of these “advocacy” or “activist” documentaries you can turn to for more info than Eyewitness News or CNN will ever, ever tell you. The mess in the Middle East? Pierre Rehov’s Suicide Killers, just out on DVD, rips the facade of piety off the face of the young Muslim men who strap explosives to their body and shows them for the sexually repressed children they are. Fundamentalist Islam takes a beating in the process, of course, but the despair of the middle-of-the-road majority is not ignored, either. Or get the historical context for suicide bombers from 1970s Iran to 2000s London in The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, another project, in which former CIA agent Robert Baer gives us straight-up, old-fashioned news reportage'you know, with investigating and details and background, just like The News used to give us.

Melting icebergs? Who Killed the Electric Car? and The Great Warming. Obesity epidemic? Super Size Me. Scary Christianity? Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp. Debacle in Iraq? The Ground Truth is the uncensored word from soldiers in the sand. And Robert Greenwald has made something of a mini industry out of on-the-cheap, for-the-people muckracking with Uncovered: The War on Iraq and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, the latter of which he produced by reaching out to fans to raise the production budget for. Donate $50, his spiel went, and get your name in the film’s credits. It worked, because so many of us were so desperate for something that felt like a glimpse of the reality we weren’t seeing anywhere else.

And there’s the rub, and it’s a big one. No, it’s not about preaching to the choir; no one complains that churches preach to the choir. The problem is this: You have to know about these films, and know that you’re not getting the full story, to seek them out. When there were only three channels on TV and Edward R. Murrow shamed a communist-hunting U.S. senator, everyone knew about it. When you have to be aware of that non-studio-produced DVD giving you another side to the story in order to be aware that there’s another side to the story, how free is freedom of speech if the other side has a bigger bullhorn?