What makes a propaganda film?
June 29, 2013 7:43 AM   Subscribe

How can a film rely solely on the opinions/viewpoint of a (social, political) activist without ultimately becoming a propaganda piece? If a movie focuses on an activist, does it have to feature his/her dissidents for it to be objective? Can't the film just allow for this person to tell his/her story and still not be classified as being sympathetic towards him/her? Are there any prominent examples of films that focus on such figures, for which the filmmakers have been later praised/vilified?

I can think of Errol Morris' Fog of War as an example of a film that focuses on Robert McNamara's account of the events without featuring any other accounts/arguments. Still, Morris' film was widely praised.. Perhaps this is because the documentary was perceived as more of a confession than a documentation.
posted by omar.a to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's important to separate out the viewpoints of the subject of a documentary from the viewpoints of its makers. Errol Morris is legendary for his ability to do this, which is why his work is so highly regarded.

Other "documentary film makers" (Michael Moore comes to mind) don't pay the same attention to nuance and point of view.
posted by Sara C. at 8:01 AM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Leni Riefenstahl - Triumph of the Will is kind of the ultimate example here. I'd start there.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:01 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

How can a film rely solely on the opinions/viewpoint of a (social, political) activist without ultimately becoming a propaganda piece?

The same way that anyone expressing their point of view at length (a university lecturer, your friend) does not necessarily constitute propaganda.

Like The Fog of War, the film Collapse features one man's strong views but ends up being more of a character study, ultimately undermining the credibility of the views expressed.
posted by seemoreglass at 8:14 AM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Partly, it depends on your point of view. Often, one man's documentary is another man's propaganda. Most documentaries that deal with social or political issues are tendentious. I suppose what pushes a film over the line into propaganda is a matter of how much deception is used to make the case. The genius of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is that it bypassed facts and reasoning altogether, and aimed straight for the emotions. The first time I saw it, I was horrified to find that, even though I considered the Nazis thoroughly repellent, Riefenstahl was successfully manipulating my emotions in exactly the way she intended. Now that is propaganda.
posted by markcmyers at 8:18 AM on June 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Much comes down to framing the content, rather than the content. Fog of War is an interview of a single subject, and it includes segments about McNamara's birth and early life. It's not framed as an opinion piece or a slanted, selective view (indeed, we don't see much of Morris himself, so we don't even have a second voice commenting on the first). It's framed as a deep dive on a single topic that doesn't treat itself as being anything other than what it is.

Contrast that with a imaginary documentary about an activist that starts out saying something like, "Joe has been fighting for environmenal justice all his life." So, we have someone talking about Joe; a squishy, impossible-to-prove declaration; and a framing device that says we're going to talk about the subjective topic of justice.

If you took the Morris approach, you'd have Joe looking at the camera saying, "I first got interested in the environment when my family used to go to Yosemite each summer." OK, now it's an interview with Joe...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:22 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a new film out (disclaimer: I worked on it) about activist Grace Lee Boggs that might be of interest to you. I'm not sure that it's propaganda, but it's the story of one woman's life and work, without any input from those who might not agree with her.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:55 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA is basically one-sided and it is a work of tremendous power. In no small part because it uses no narration or any other artifice - it's simply filming a miner's strike and letting the footage and the people interviewed speak for themselves. It's been received, rightly, as a masterwork of documentary.
posted by graymouser at 9:26 AM on June 29, 2013

Here's an interesting perspective from a (famous) film director friend of mine.

I was complaining about "manipulative" films which try to ram emotions/conclusions down my throat. He looked at me like I was crazy, and said that ALL films are manipulative - that's the very point of film. Every choice in writing, acting, filming, and editing is made to convey the desired idea or emotion.

That said, some directors work harder to hide their machinations. And they can paint the antagonists (in terms of characters or perspectives) with more or less sympathy and subtlety. So there's a spectrum, from "seemingly-balanced", through "heavy-handed" all the way up to the unapologetically clobbering approach of a Michael Moore. But all films are propaganda - some more obviously than others.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:13 AM on June 29, 2013

"Everything is propaganda" is too facile a statement. I don't regard the Op-Ed page of my newspaper as "propaganda" (at least, not most of the Op-Eds).

Propaganda is typically in service of an institution. There is an anecdote of American consultants trying to translate the word "Public Relations" to a foreign audience, and the translation they came up with was the word for "propaganda," which is not as loaded a word as it is in English.

An independently made documentary that casts Mao in a positive light is not necessarily propaganda. A documentary about the glories of Mao's life produced by the Chinese Communist Party or a documentary that used the CCP as their primary source for information and whose script was reviewed or approved by the CCP would be regarded as propaganda. See the difference?
posted by deanc at 10:17 AM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hope this is not a derail. I grew up in a country where the major tv station, the BBC, has no 'commercial breaks' or a 'now a message from our sponsor'. You get to see a programme from beginning to end without any interruption.

The first time I visited the US, I was staggered to see how almost all tv was chock-a-bloc with propaganda. it seemed like every eight minutes or so. Propaganda like: Buy Now. Buy this to make you (or your husband) happy. Consume. Consume. Consume.

When I mentioned this was propaganda to American hosts they looked at me as if I were simple minded or a communist. Or both.

I guess 'propaganda' may lie in the eye of the beholder.
posted by Mister Bijou at 10:37 AM on June 29, 2013

"Everything is propaganda" is too facile a statement. I don't regard the Op-Ed page of my newspaper as "propaganda" (at least, not most of the Op-Eds).

I didn't say everything is propaganda. I said films are.

All art is propaganda, just some artists push harder and more nakedly and with less balance than others. We may try to delineate a range of that spectrum as the "propaganda" zone, but that's just the zone where it becomes more obvious.

Same for your newspaper, really. If you don't deem the Op-Eds as propaganda, that likely means 1. you more or less agree with them, and/or 2. they're relatively soft in their methods of persuasion.

Hard or soft, persuasion is persuasion. Propaganda is the line where it feels "hard" to you (which has a great deal to do with your sympathies).
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:37 AM on June 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I was in college the name of the class was "Documentary/Propaganda Film". They are two sides of the same coin. I think that what you decide to call it depends on your personal feeling about the subject being discussed. There is no such thing as a purely objective documentary. Objectivity disappears as soon as you turn on a camera and decide where to point it.
posted by DaddyNewt at 10:42 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

London Can Take It is propaganda, and was made as a film to boost morale. I think The Man from Hope is propaganda, but it was made as a campaign film, not a hard-news documentary. I don't know many documentary film makers who try for a strictly objective, both sides now, film--maybe Frontline, but very few even then. Indie doc makers usually have a POV.

Are all sales films propaganda? TV commercials are trying to sell you something but so are PSAs.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:21 AM on June 29, 2013

You wrote "If a movie focuses on an activist, does it have to feature his/her dissidents for it to be objective?"

People don't have dissidents, power does. (The idea that independent filmmakers are receiving marching orders from the activists of the world is kind of silly, residue of old kremlin global meddling and outside agitators.)
But assuming you mean opponents, I don't think so, but I also don't think objectivity is the highest good in art and is a dangerously loaded subject in journalism. The problem is, speaking for the united states, we have a disturbed relationship to the media and it infects our consumption with cynicism. First, the corporate and beltway press engages in propaganda all the time: A decade ago we had the drumbeats to war in Iraq and today we have the demonization of whistleblowers and ridicule independent journalists (See David Gregory et al.), but polices its own in terms of what is acceptable political language (personally, I think the best overall look at this is still Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, but I almost want to police myself knowing that Chomsky is not considered an acceptable critic in polite society.).
So we are propagandized to, but the keepers are quick to flaunt their own "objectivity" and "neutrality."

Then at the same time, the very wealthy fund and create their own media to police and bash the "mainstream" media (the easiest example is Breitbart's big journalism project, but less brash playing the ref has been going on for a long long time). So even though the corporate press engages in Propaganda and is quick to police acceptable political language, it still works within a political framing that all the media is biased against the wealthy and powerful. This isn't lost on audiences who often retreat into either a media nihilism, engage with humor (joking "reality has a well-known liberal bias"), or educate themselves into the politically loaded language of what it means to be objective and what journalism strives for.

Personally, I believe in good journalism, but I think documentary film has been infected by this cynicism and we need to challenge what it means to be "objective" and "ethical."
Because if there's a film that lays out why my drinking water is being poisoned or critically responds to how the US Government presented the war on Vietnam, it can be objective AND politically persuasive, but, and this is the big but for me, above all, it has to be ethical. If it goes in and says "this is the case we're arguing" and it tells the truth, I have no beef. If it fails to be politically persuasive, but is honest, I may not be entertained by it, but at least I'll respect the filmmaker's attempt. But if it lies, omits pertinent facts, or engages in fallacious reasoning to push its side, I have to say no. And if an ethical film objectively looks at the situation AND the filmmakers independently decide to openly persuade their audience of something AND it's done ethically (and with some respect for our time, so with some sense of entertainment), then some may call it propaganda, but I don't think it's pejorative in that sense and I'll consume it critically engaged.
posted by history is a weapon at 12:08 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I figured someone would have already suggested Downfall, which got a lot of criticism precisely because people had difficulty separating the typically hagiographic form of the bio-pic from the content (the last days of Hitler). You might check that film and the controversies around it out.
posted by gerryblog at 5:13 PM on June 29, 2013

It is honestly telling a story versus obscuring the real purpose of the work via manipulative imagery. Propaganda seeks to force an opinion, documentary/storytelling seeks to share a viewpoint.
posted by gjc at 5:56 PM on June 30, 2013

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