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Truth, Moore or less

June 27, 2004|MANOHLA DARGIS

In George Orwell's dystopian classic "1984," a disembodied voice transmits streams of government-generated information from a surveillance apparatus that can never be turned off and allows the Thought Police to keep close tabs on the populace. From his window, the novel's doomed hero, Winston Smith, can see the three slogans of the ruling party -- "War Is Peace," "Freedom Is Slavery," "Ignorance Is Strength" -- emblazoned on the cruelly named Ministry of Truth. Everywhere he turns, Big Brother keeps watch.

In Orwell's novel, power begets reality begets truth. The "Party" dictates not just how individuals live and love, but how they perceive the world. In this world, reality isn't simply there -- a truth that can be grasped by an individual consciousness -- it's there because the Party says it's there, again and again. Repeated enough and with enough pressure, the Party's propaganda becomes Winston's reality and, finally, his truth. In Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- the title is borrowed from Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451" -- the filmmaker argues that the Bush administration has become an Orwellian nightmare, a wellspring of Newspeak, a ministry of fear.

For many moviegoers, the veracity of Moore's take on the Bush administration will largely depend on their political bent. For others, however, the film's effectiveness may ironically hinge on its effectiveness as propaganda. The propaganda label may displease Moore partisans (a fierce lot, in my experience), who may be loath to admit that this subjective, unapologetically left-leaning film is anything less than objectively true. That's too bad because whatever else it accomplishes, "Fahrenheit 9/11" raises fascinating questions about propaganda and documentary, suggesting that the divide between the two is not always as vast as filmmakers and audiences sometimes imagine.

The word propaganda originated in the 17th century with a committee of Catholic cardinals that oversaw foreign missions -- congregatio de propaganda fide or congregation for propagating the faith. Since then the word has come to mean the systematic promotion of specific ideas and images to either advance your cause or damage that of an opponent. By this definition, propaganda includes: Dziga Vertov's Soviet-funded ode to filmmaking and revolutionary ideals, "The Man With a Movie Camera" (1929); Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi-commissioned panegyric to Adolf Hitler, "Triumph of the Will" (1935); Emile de Antonio's chronicle of the Vietnam War, "In the Year of the Pig" (1969); the right-wing video "The Clinton Chronicles" (1994) -- along with World War II-era U.S. government-produced films, federally funded anti-drug commercials and that sex-education short that freaked you out in school.

Vertov wasn't the first filmmaker to bend filmed documents to instrumental ends. In 1897, Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton traveled from New York City to Cuba to record the Spanish-American War. They shot a lot of footage, but somehow missed the pivotal Battle of Santiago Bay. Smith later explained how he and Blackton used photographic cutouts of American and Spanish ships, billows of cigar and cigarette smoke and dashes of gunpowder to re-create the missing battle. They then edited this sleight of hand in with their existing footage and unleashed the subterfuge in two separate films. "Almost every newspaper in New York," wrote Smith, "carried an account of the showings, commenting on Vitagraph's remarkable feat in obtaining on-the-spot pictures of these two historic events."


The art form matures

In the century to follow, documentary filmmakers continued to shape the truth through a variety of styles and with an even wider range of intentions. In the early 1920s, Robert Flaherty transformed an Inuit named Nanook into an icon of Natural Man by turning a cut-away igloo into a stage. Three years after Riefenstahl helped spit-shine Hitler's public image, Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens watched fascist planes bomb Spanish civilians, an event he and cameraman John Ferno caught on film for the 1937 anti-fascist documentary "The Spanish Earth." Ivens later added the sound of broken glass to the soundtrack and "the slight crunching of it" to accompany the image of two children killed by Nazi artillery in Madrid. ("Fortune" magazine editor Archibald MacLeish helped raise the funds; Ernest Hemingway wrote and recited the narration.)

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