OpEd Columns

Watch Film Yourself, Then Decide and Vote (Indianapolis Star 7/2/04 )

My neighbors will not see Fahrenheit 9/11. “It’s just a bunch of lies.”
Really? You know that without seeing it?
“I heard he twists all the facts and just wants to get Bush out of office. None of it’s true.”
Hmm. I didn’t know that.
If you ever see Jennifer Lopez in person, she’s not that attractive. My sister's best friend told me.
Expectations shape perception. We have expectations from our TV set. We have expectations from the movie screen. We have expectations that TV news should be factual. We have expectations that films described as “documentaries” should be presented like the news. Objectively.
Why? Because that’s how we first experience documentaries growing up….in elementary school.
Yawn. Boring films presented to the class as factual, educational documents, used by teachers to supplement text book material…or bide time for the substitute until the regular teacher returns from her doctor’s appointment. Documentaries about animals, countries, insects, historical figures, human bodies. Pop quizzes after the screening.
But in reality, documentaries are films…not facts. Not necessarily testable material. No one taught us that in social studies class.
No one in my eighth grade class of 1977 ever questioned the accuracy of the portrayal of Christopher Columbus in the yawn-filled documentary we endured one sticky Spring afternoon. Our teacher Mr. Jones had the flu. We passed notes while the substitute read a magazine. Maybe that movie was just a bunch of lies.
Whatever you do, don’t eat at Papa Giannetto’s. The pizza is terrible. Haven’t been there myself, but my friend got sick after eating at the one in Pennsylvania.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 may be the first documentary many Americans have ever seen in a movie theater. It may not. They may be doc savvy. But walking into the theater saddled with typical documentary expectations of Fahrenheit 9//11, is like turning on The O’Reilly Factor and thinking you’ll be watching a reality TV show. Well, I guess they are related…about as much as I’m related to my sister-in-law’s husband’s step- brother.
Does that mean Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary? No. Does that mean it’s full of lies? No. Does that mean Fahrenheit 9/11 distorts reality? No.
It means that Fahrenheit 9/11 has a point-of-view. A distinct point-of-view. An unrelenting argument. One rarely seen in films described as documentaries. One never seen on anything left of Laura Ingraham. In Michael Moore, Ingraham, the snide right radio host, has met her long lost leftist fraternal twin.
They both twist sound bites silly to make a point. They cleverly select statistics favorable to their political cause. They sarcastically skewer their opponents.
But with Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore the filmmaker trumps Ingraham the radio host. He presents the original goods. The real stories of average citizens…both here and over there.
For those who see the film, ignore Moore’s statistics. Ignore Moore’s biting sarcasm. Even ignore his connect-the-dots argument placing President Bush’s hand deep in the Saudi cookie jar.
But ignore Moore’s captivating, previously unseen footage both from Iraq and the United States, and you’re ignoring what’s happening in our country and in the world. It’s difficult to watch the carnage of war. It’s chilling to see Iraqi women and children in utter horror. It’s heartbreaking to see an American mother read the final letter from her soldier son, killed in the line of duty. You can discredit Moore’s footage as not being representative of the war as a whole. But you can’t say it’s not representative of each sad, gut-wrenching event.
To ignore that is truly sad.
Don’t go to New Orleans for a vacation. My uncle said it rains all the time.
As a voting American citizen, to discard Fahrenheit 9/11 based upon the comments of those who haven’t seen the film is even more tragic. Every American casting a vote in November, should take the two hours to watch Fahrenheit 9/11. They should also watch Fox News. Check out CNN. Read The Washington Post. Read The Washington Times. Watch the presidential debates. Get both sides of each argument.
Then vote based on what you’ve experienced and believe…not heard from a neighbor or a talk show host.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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