Documentary is the bone and muscle of the film genres, the tough, sometimes hard exterior that layers truth around a medium so filled with fictional wonder and narrative liberties. Documentaries can be fun and lighthearted, but the ones that seem to rock us to our core are the ones that drop us cold at the doorstep of reality. Only in the past ten or fifteen years have documentaries enjoyed a sort of mainstream revival, an open invitation to the homes and minds of people eager for truth and stories unveiled from behind the traditional blinders of fiction. The sheer volume of issue-based documentaries have grown more substantially than any other. The past decade has seen an influx of expose’s on war, poverty, environmentalism, and economy. Documentarians like Michael Moore and Errol Morris add narrative flair to their films, bringing important issues to the common rhetoric. In 2006, Al Gore presented his documentary An Inconvenient Truth on the affects of global warming, a telling that would lead the issue towards international awareness.
Awareness is really the function of issue-based doc’s, and the most functional of these films work by presenting the issue, and then letting their audience decide what to do with the information. Amidst 2009’s catalog of released documentaries, two shine brighter than any other for their hard truths, and affective storytelling abilities. Louie Psihoyos The Cove, and Robert Kenner’s Food Inc. are the most clear examples of how an issue should be presented in a documentary, and how a documentary is supposed to respect the cognitive dissonance of its audience.
The Cove, my favorite doc of ’09, is an absolutely riveting look at one little Cove in Taiji Japan that plays host to the most brutal of massacre’s, multiple times yearly. Now I don’t consider myself to be an activist of any sort, and I’ve always slightly detested PETA, but here is a film based on Animal Rights that will move any decent human being to tears. Taiji Japan is home base to the Japanese whaling and dolphin industry, the prominent location for dolphin trading in the world. Dolphin trainers from Aquarium’s and parks like Sea World come to Taiji to select dolphins for their attractions. These animals are cruelly corralled, picked over, and then the many not chosen are massacred in a cove hidden by tall cliffs, barbed fences, and an army of ruthless fisherman who do everything to hide the cold truth of their jobs. The film follows Ric O’Barry, perhaps the worlds most renowned dolphin trainer (Flipper) as he and the filmmakers make attempt upon attempt to uncover the horrible slaughter. O’Barry himself is a complex character, a once trainer now turned activist who places the blame of the worlds obsession with the dolphin as his own. O’Barry and the crew utilize extremely covert tactics that would give even Q from the James Bond films a run for his money. As events unfold, the film becomes a tense, espionage based thriller that leads to an outcome you will never forget for as long as you live.
Food Inc. is another slightly horrifying look at something we take for granted; our food. Every day we eat multiple times, not giving too much thought to what we are actually consuming. Sure, you may be one of thousands who say you eat only organic, and are conscience about your food intake, but as Food Inc. points out, you may not be as conscience as you think. Sounds like a one-sided horror story, but I can assure you, Food Inc. is an equal, honest, and up-front unveiling of a food industry that cares more for profits, then they do the quality of their products. Visiting farms, and seeing how the closely guarded secrets of the major food companies affect production, the filmmakers paint a vivid portrait without pushing an agenda. These are not the stories of lost limbs in meat packing plants as in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. These are stories of companies holding patents on life, over-production by way of playing god with the very sustenance we need. The ideas in Krenner’s doc are illuminating, presented in ways that successfully link journalistic integrity with riveting entertainment.