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Fox Hunting and Bush Whacking

Political documentaries are influencing public debate as never before, with a little help from the 'net.

By Dorothy Woodend 17 Sep 2004 |

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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''Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" -- A. J. Liebling

This tidy little statement might well have been penned for Rupert Murdoch, who owns many presses, and also radio stations, a television network, publishing companies, and a movie studio. He is loathed by many, including Eric Clapton and Dennis Potter. During one of his last interviews when he was terminally ill, Potter said, "I call my cancer Rupert. Because that man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time (I've got too much writing to do)... I would shoot the bugger if I could."

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism is a new documentary from Robert Greenwald (the director of Uncovered: The War on Iraq). It's a meticulous dissection of the Fox News network, its politics, methods and overall ambitions, which seem to be not only to spread disinformation but also to keep its audience in a state of perpetual fear and hostility towards just about anyone who isn't white, heterosexual and Republican.

It's also a story about how media has changed, not simply because of Fox's corporate quest for the bottom but also because Goliath can be undone by lots of little Davids. Outfoxed makes the point that for all the control that big media strives to attain, human beings are an ornery bunch, and will always scuttle around the margins of things, writing blogs, sending e-mails, making films on their digital cameras.

Insurrectionists all, and in the heart of every abused ink-stained wretch writing pithy puke for Bill O'Reilly beats the heart of rebellion. Small people can bring down a media giant. (Michael Moore started the idea of the everyman with his camera demanding some corporate comeuppance with Roger and Me.) One thing you can always count on is the human proclivity for stubborn contrariness in the face of propaganda.

Grassroots drove Outfoxed

In the featurette that accompanies the film on DVD you meet the team that put Outfoxed together, and it's comprised of women, people of colour, old hippies and the like. Not the most frightening bunch of people you'll ever see, but these are guerrilla documentarians. A feature story in the New York Times Magazine covered the odd birth of the film itself. It purposely started small, bypassing theatres onto DVD, where it sold an astounding number of copies, thanks in part to promotion from Some 50,000 DVDs and 3,000 screening parties later and Outfoxed was a hit. The demand finally warranted a theatrical release.

Fox is given sufficient rope to hang itself multiple times, which it cheerfully does through carefully assembled and edited footage, much of it taken directly off the TV itself. In addition to the talking heads of Fox, there is a host of lefties assembled to give their opinions, including Al Franken and Walter Conkrite.

Some former employees of the Fox Channel also come forth to offer their own personal experiences, which sound harrowing enough, but none is as profoundly disturbing as that of young Jeremy Glick, the son of a dead Port Authority worker killed when the World Trade Center Towers fell. After being told to shut up multiples time on camera, Bill O'Reilly threatened Glick, then said off camera that he would 'tear him to fucking pieces.' The fact that Bill O'Reilly is insane doesn't seem to be much in dispute, and even Fox executives seem a little cowed by him.

The notion that Fox has a neocon, fundamentalist Christian --and even worse, bad mannered -- approach to journalism isn't exactly news. Anyone who flipped past Bill O'Reilly can smell the Eau de Kook coming off him. But there are many more interesting issues raised, from media conglomeration to fear-mongering to the more insidious issue of a religious showdown between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

If mainstream media won't address the big issues, documentarians and filmmakers have leapt in with both feet to kick some ass, as Greenwald himself says. Fahrenheit 9/11 may have made the opening charge, but plenty of other films are coming swiftly behind Moore's juggernaut. These include The Hunting of the President, Control Room, Orwell Rolls in His Grave , Hijacking Catastrophe, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, The Yes Men, Bush's Brain, and This Ain't No Heartland.

Docs reveal U.S. at turning point

Documentaries are tumbling forth at a furious rate this fall, mostly because it's an election year, but there is also the sense, and Outfoxed makes this explicit, that something more important hangs in the balance. It's the notion that the U.S. is at a critical point in its history, and where it goes from here will determine the course of global events for some time to come. The decline and fall of the American empire may not far off, and for some it can't come soon enough.

Can movies really change things? Maybe they already have, if the massive protests in New York City during the Republican National Convention are any indication. The biggest change is not that these documentaries all arrived at once, but that people might actually see them. Distribution has always been an issue for smaller films, but our friend the Internet and the many busy little brothers and sisters and their computers are altering that as well.

Robert Kane Pappas's Orwell Rolls in His Grave takes a similar approach to that of Outfoxed, in making an argument that Big Brother is now Big Brother Media. If you've paid any attention to the FCC hearings in the U.S., which relaxed such things as ownership caps on media companies, effectively clearing the path for the rampant consolidation by such companies as Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch's empire, this appears to be true.

Fox and Clear Channel also have significant ties to the Bush family. Them Bushes, they do beat around. The almost Byzantine layers of money, cronyism and media deregulation involving Clear Channel and the Bush family is well laid out in an article on Buzz Flash. Don't read it and weep. Get mad!

Where dunderheads moon

But even films like 9/11 or Outfoxed might not have any lasting impact on the millions of thoroughly indoctrinated Fox viewers, many of whom probably populate This Ain't No Heartland. Directed by Andreas Horvath, this documentary has been screened in film festivals around the world and garnered much press for its bleak depiction of average Americans. Stephen Holden in The New York Times describes them as "ill-informed, rural, small-town Americans who haven't followed the war beyond absorbing a few sound bites from television…. The film returns several times to a bar where a group of increasingly tipsy beer drinkers tell racist jokes and fantasize fending off invading armies. The rowdiest of the group gleefully imagines facing down "two billion screaming Chinamen coming at you" with a certainty that America would win. Feeling no pain, he drops his trousers and moons the camera."

YEEHAW, it's easy to make fun of Americans; we Canadians make it into a fine art. But really this sounds kind of frightening. There are some strange parallels running through these films. The people interviewed by Horvath maintain that the threat to the U.S. people justifies their need to have lots and lots of guns (shades of Moore's Bowling for Columbine).

But they probably don't have a lot of computers. Many of the web sites that have worked closely with the film makers, such as Moveon.Org, Alternet, and are still not that well known by the general population. Older people still want a physical piece of paper to sit down and read while they drink their coffee. But the internet as a means of disseminating information is gaining ground, especially among younger people.

It's also changing the way that traditional media does it job. A recent article on Alternet, by Robert Jensen, takes the new documentary Hijacking Catastrophe as an illustration of just how things are changing. "These repeated failures of journalists to hold the powerful accountable should be a subject of serious discussion not just within the profession but for all of us. If journalists don't provide a truly independent source of news and instead routinely subordinate themselves to power - especially in times of war and national crisis - it's difficult to imagine how citizens can adequately inform themselves so that they can participate in the political arena in a meaningful way. But when journalism fails, it's possible for other institutions to take on some of the news media's obligations."

The soldiers' story

Outfoxed and many other political documentaries have a definite bias, yet it's still sometimes the objective depiction of a complicated situation that is the most difficult. Gunner Palace provides a compelling example. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary has attracted a lot of buzz. But before the film made it onto the big screen, it attracted attention on many smaller screens. In an interview with David Hudson from Green Cine, Gunner Palace director Michael Tucker talks candidly about his experiences making the film and the odd way that it came into existence.

"On June 1, Tucker posted a moving account of his experiences with the 2/3 Field Artillery unit stationed in a palace built for Uday Hussein, one of Saddam's high-living sons. Tucker has also posted two clips from the film and word has spread across the Net like virtual wildfire. The two clips are, interestingly, both musical numbers. In one, a soldier raps about the constant fear of getting hit, about having seen more at the age of 24 than most men see before they're 50. In the other, a specialist armed with an electric guitar cranks out a Hendrix-inspired version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the roof while helicopters make their rounds above him."

The clips made their way into the most unlikely places, even showing up on web forums devoted to the Minnesota Vikings football team, and the film itself has been heralded by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott as something every American should see. Tucker, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper said he hopes the film will challenge the "Fox News view" of the war. But its stated intent is simply to present, as objectively as possible, the reality of some soldier's experiences. Or as Tucker says: "I'm trying to make something that's honest. And soldiers have a huge hang-up about it. All they want is for someone to tell the truth. Not embellish it."

The truth, however hard squashed, usually comes leaking out eventually. Sometimes it's carried out surreptitiously, like the memos sneaked to Greenwald's team by anonymous Fox employees, and in other cases presented simply in all its bare glory like in Gunner's Palace. That's where the internet has come into its own, it's a tool of 'democrazy' through pure plurality. All the information and viewpoints are out there; all you have to do is watch, think, read, hum and haw, argue and then decide, or not. And here we are doing this very thing on The Tyee, exercising our rights to freedom of the press and all those other lovely notions that take place in a healthy democracy.

Dorothy Woodend is film critic for The Tyee. Outfoxed debuts in Vancouver Friday, Oct. 1 at 7:30, at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, 350 West Georgia. A panel discussion will follow, including Tyee contributors Deborah Campbell and Elaine Briere, as well as  former Adbusters editor James MacKinnon. The Tyee is co-sponsoring the screening as part of Media Democracy Day.

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