It was a Sunday evening in February 2001. Film critic Roger Ebert was on television plugging the video release of "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill" (1996), a fascinating documentary examining the trial of three Arkansas teenagers accused of a grisly multiple-killing linked to Satanism and heavy-metal music. Toward the end, Ebert observed that the indefatigable filmmakers had shot "nearly 200 hours" of film to glean their 150-minute finished product.
Remarkably, it was that simple observation -- 200 hours of selective footage shrunk to 150 minutes -- that caused me to question my faith in documentaries. Call me naive, but until that moment I'd always believed, more or less, that live footage and real people indicated that what we were watching was a "true story."
Isn't the essential allure of a documentary the fact that we are being treated to a "nonfiction" account of a subject? Without this presumptive truth quotient -- the belief that what's being presented on the screen is factual and accurate -- documentaries would amount to little more than cinematic graffiti.
When Oliver Stone was criticized some years ago for taking liberties with the truth in his conspiracy-minded film, "JFK," he defended himself by saying, "Hey, this is only a movie; it's not a documentary."
Indeed, it's this implicit credibility that distinguishes something like "The Sorrow and the Pity," Marcel Ophuls' shattering documentary on anti-Semitism in World War II Vichy France, from, say, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
But the genre is ripe for mischief. In fact, given how easy it must be for a clever filmmaker to transform 200 hours of selected footage into a 100-minute film that, effectively, jazzes up, plays down or "documents" anything he likes, one wonders how much longer the genre can maintain its amateur standing.
For example, by selecting the "right" interviews and attending the "right" parties, an ambitious director could have morphed my high school grad night into pretty much anything he wanted -- from "Mayberry RFD" to "Animal House" -- depending on how he edited his footage.
Historically, documentary films have reflected, almost exclusively, the artistic provenance of the socially conscious and progressive.
There have been dozens of brilliant documentaries produced in the last 40 years, including these memorable Academy Award winners: "Woodstock" (counterculture), "Hearts and Minds" (anti-Vietnam war), "Harlan County, USA" (pro-labor), "The Times of Harvey Milk" (gay activism) and 2002's "Bowling for Columbine" (anti-gun culture). And the only way Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is not going to win next year's best documentary Oscar is if it's nominated in the best picture category instead.
But "Fahrenheit 9/11's" astonishing success has an alarming downside.
With documentaries proving they can be popular and influential -- not to mention wildly lucrative -- it's only a matter of time before conservatives jump on the bandwagon.
Some will do it for the money, others as payback for Moore's insolence. But once the tantalizing "advocacy potential" of documentary films is fully grasped, there will be a stampede, and this once-noble genre will escalate into a fiercely partisan, gladiatorial free-for-all -- a movie version of talk radio.
Half-truths will become so prevalent and compelling, we won't know whom to believe or what images to trust. By preaching to their respective choirs, documentaries will become as common and mean-spirited as those bestsellers by Ann Coulter and Messrs. Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Franken.
Consider this scenario: George W. Bush wins the '04 election and serves out his term. With Cheney too old and infirm to seek the presidency, the 2008 nominations become wide-open contests for both parties.
The one name the Democrats are already bandying about for '08 -- in the event Kerry loses in November -- is Hillary Clinton. Whether one admires Sen. Clinton or not, it doesn't take much political savvy to imagine the type of right-wing "documentary" she would generate. Touche, Michael Moore.