It’s quite acceptable to dismiss ‘The Media’ these days as a craven, bottom-line driven industry that caters to the lowest common denominator. It is easy to find appalling examples of a lack of interest in the public interest, but I think it’s important not to forget the good work that media can do . . . . even when it’s not trying to do anything good at all.
Just last week, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a new project called Rights/Camera/Action. Through their focus groups and research, ACLU recognized that entertainment and the arts have a profound impact on American public opinion about civil liberties. To kick-off the initiative, I moderated a panel on the topic at their national membership conference. The panel included a delicious selection of artists, from internationally acclaimed playwright Ariel Dorfman, who wrote Death and the Maiden, to actor Kal Penn, star of the raunchy Harold & Kumar movie franchise. Most of the panel was composed of successful documentary filmmakers, who have attracted awards and occasionally record-breaking box-office dollars to serious films tackling tough issues. While the topics of their films range from tragic miscarriages of justice in North Carolina to institutionalized torture in Afghanistan, one common thread in their work is the benefit of exposing information to the broadest possible audience. Whether it’s the citizens of Winston, North Carolina, reading a series of articles in the local paper or ACLU members gathering at someone’s house to watch Taxi to the Dark Side, or even stoned teenagers at the Cineplex watching Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay, the media â€“ for good and for ill â€“ has the power to pull people together and, for a precious moment or two, provide them with a shared experience that may just lead to an idea, a conversation, or a new way of looking at the world.
According to actor Kal Penn, the creators of Harold & Kumar had no interest whatsoever in stirring any political pots when they decided to send Harold and Kumar to Gitmo. The filmmakers knew they’d be pushing people’s buttons, but they didn’t necessarily have an agenda when they let the boys get high with President Bush at his Crawford ranch.
But an agenda’s not necessary to have an impact. An audience is.
Unlike all of the earnest ‘War on Terror’ feature films that came out last year, H&K was a box-office success, and it will attract an even larger audience when it’s released on DVD. The last installment of H&K, which cost $9 million to make, raked in $60 million in DVD sales.
When Ariel Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden, a disturbing play about torture, his wife told him no one in Chile would watch it. She was right about Chile, but the play resonated with audiences around the world and, after countless productions, it reached an even larger audience when Roman Polanski adapted it into a star-studded film with Sigourney Weaver.
Even the most devastating stories can have a way of finding an audience, and the route to that audience can be circuitous, indeed. In Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt, the news media played a crucial role in the case of Hunt, a man who spent two decades in prison for a brutal crime he did not commit. His community and his legal team were unrelenting in their fight for his innocence for 20 long years, but even though they had demanded and finally won an analysis of DNA that cleared Hunt of the rape charges, a second jury convicted him once again. Sure that he would spend the rest of his life in prison, the documentary filmmakers put their work on hold (the undeveloped film was literally put on ice) until an investigative reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal published an 8-part series on the case. The newspaper articles not only helped the racially-divided city better understand the details of the case, it also elicited a tip from a citizen that led to Hunt’s exoneration . . . and the revival of the documentary about his ordeal.
Peter Gilbert and Steve James probably never would have made their documentary, At the Death House Door, if two investigative reporters from the Chicago Tribune hadn’t come to them with the story of Carlos De Luna, a man who had been executed by the state of Texas despite convincing evidence of his innocence. While the film addressed De Luna’s tragic story, the filmmakers soon realized that their film had to focus instead on De Luna’s death house chaplain â€“ the man who accompanied him (and 94 other men) to their executions. Reverend Pickett’s experience ministering to these condemned men â€“ some of whom were so mentally disabled that they had no comprehension of their imminent death â€“ convinced him to speak out against the death penalty. In the film, Pickett explains that he’s no advocate â€“ like the makers of Harold & Kumar, sometimes the anti-advocates are the most effective advocates of all.
All the filmmakers on the panel were interested in unveiling things that were previously hidden. How can a storyteller resist an untold story? This issue itself â€“ the seductive quality of a secret â€“ is the topic of Robert Moss and Peter Galison’s film Secrecy, which explores the vast, invisible world of government secrecy. In the film, Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, discusses the way in which the National Security bureaucracy proceeds on a ‘need to know’ basis. It begs the question, of course, ‘Who should decide?’ What level of omniscience is necessary to decide who needs to know what? How do you go about training those 4,000 government and military employees who have the power to plunge a piece of information into obscurity? As we know, humans have a pretty terrible track record at predicting the future. It can be incredibly difficult figuring out how information (and representations of information) will actually affect the world. But sensitive governmental information in the U.S. is controlled by a system of compartmentalization, which, among other things, decreases the chance of a serendipitous encounter â€“ a chance discovery that could lead to that critical break-through, that epiphanic moment when it all comes together. Sometimes, that moment awaits you at your local movie theater.