While non-fiction films didn’t always have a political agenda, the form has long been associated with concerned filmmakers attempting to have a concrete effect on the world, and since the 1960s, progressive social change has become almost synonymous with the word documentary. For the most part this has largely happened through revealing new information and points of view to audiences, but every now and then documentaries have gone beyond that and have left an easily seen, indelible mark on the world. To everyone who says that documentaries are irrelevant because of their niche audience and small box-office returns, we offer these in response.
Errol Morris’ first mature feature is perhaps the most famous case of a documentary having a life outside the silver screen. The Thin Blue Line focuses on the case of Randall Adams, who allegedly murdered a police officer. Combining his nearly obsessive concern for the truth with his experience as a private detective, Morris unearthed a plethora of misconceptions and flat-out lies that made it clear Adams was being framed. Publicity surrounding the film resulted in his case being re-opened, exonerating Adams.
Frederick Wiseman’s first film as a director also ended up being his most controversial. An expose (of a sort) about the treatment of inmates at the Bridgewater State mental hospital, its horrifying scenes were restricted for many years to doctors, lawyers and healthcare professionals. Titicut Follies may actually be more famous for the effect it had on American privacy laws than for its content, setting a strange precedent of banning a work for neither obscenity nor security reasons. Much more importantly, though, the legal battle it inspired raised national awareness as to the terrible conditions of mental health facilities and is considered to have had direct influence in on the closing of Bridgewater State—much less fortunate is the consensus that had the film not been repressed, it may have saved the lives and suffering of many Bridgewater inmates.
Harlan County, USA remains one of the most important social documentaries ever made, documenting a coal-miner strike in Kentucky and the various methods used to squash it by the Duke Power Company. While director Barbara Kopple initially went there simply to record the events, she was unable to remain on the sidelines. Kopple showed early cuts of her film in order to help fund the strike as it dragged on endlessly. After the strike became increasingly violent and one of the miners was murdered, she used her camera as a tool for preventing violence, and there’s no doubt that the presence of her and her film crew deterred numerous violent outbreaks.
Kopple’s friends and mentors the Maysles Brothers managed to prevent the wrongful conviction of another man with their film Gimme Shelter. A recording and debriefing of the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, the event turned into a riot as concertgoers fought with the Hells Angels who were brought on as security. This resulted in the stabbing of Meredith Hunter by a member of the group who was later brought to trial. Footage in the film, though, proved that Hunter had actually drawn a gun and was attacked in self-defense.
McDonald’s claims that the removal of its “Super Size” option at all locations less than six weeks after this film’s release was a coincidence, but it’s a claim that’s pretty hard to believe. Following the success of Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food for an entire month, the company began posting nutrition information for its food and began including healthier alternatives on their menus, as well as completely revamping its Happy Meals.
One of the most memorable parts of Michal Moore’s anti-gun movie was when he took two Columbine victims to the Kmart headquarters and asked for a refund on the bullets still lodged in their bodies. As a result, Kmart stopped selling handgun ammunition, and while this is a small gain (it’s not like ammunition isn’t readily available elsewhere), it still proved that corporations can be shamed into changing their policies.
Inside Job focused on the American financial bubble, but part of it touches on consulting deals done by members of the Columbia Business School faculty. These jobs were taken on, despite the better judgment of individuals, because they didn’t have to be disclosed publicly, thus resulting in problems like Federic Mishikin writing about the strength of the Icelandic economy for Iceland’s Chamber of Commerce immediately before the country went bankrupt. As a result of the film, Columbia added a new policy requiring public disclosure of all outside activities that may create a conflict of interest, as well a keeping this information available and current on their website so it’s easily accessible.
The West Memphis Three are well-known now, but at the time Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, their guilt was a foregone conclusion. Like Morris, the pair reconsidered “facts” of the case and put pressure on the prosecution for using shortcuts and coercion to get the answers they wanted. By continuing to follow the Three’s story, Berlinger and Sinofsky never let the case get forgotten, giving it the publicity necessary to continue an impossible fight. While it may have taken 18 years to succeed (and the Three were still required, insanely, to plead guilty), the documentaries did finally help win the group their freedom.
And because not every documentary changes the world for the better, here’s one that changed it for the worse…
One of the most aesthetically impressive and world-changing documentaries ever made was also one of the most morally reprehensible. While debates still rage about how great of an effect Triumph of the Will had in the overall war effort, it had an undeniable effect in recruitment by propping up the cult of personality surrounding Hitler and creating the illusion of unanimous support for the Third Reich. Frank Capra noted at the time that it “fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal,” and responded in kind by making his own propaganda documentary series by re-editing captured portions of Triumph called Why We Fight.