Throwing their skinny bodies on plain, fresh graves the children kiss framed pictures of their relatives. Pieces of brown skin peel of their bodies, which are tainted by a color produced by napalm-bombs. Desperately groaning and unnaturally high-pitched voices float through the theater’s sound system.
The audience holds its breath. It is hard to tell the ages of the mourners their bodies look like those of children, yet their faces are adult-like. All that the audience hears is the resonance of unfiltered crying and mourning.
The scene skips. In a large, sterile room and tensed atmosphere, American middle-class women listen to the announcements calling out the names of killed soldiers: their husbands, friends and fathers. Suddenly, a woman breaks into tears and the same mourning that had filled the Vietnamese children’s voices, lacerates the silence.
Scenes from Peter Davis’ 1968 Oscar-winning documentary feature on the Vietnam War, “Hearts and Minds,” captured the unspoken reality and brought it into the homes of America. Since the 1940’s documentary filmmaking has been a crucial part of U.S. culture.
“Documentaries started as something that you weren’t supposed to see,” said Davis on the night of Nov. 10 during the John Huston Lecture “Documentaries of Dissent” presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
“People have been filming things that you don’t ordinarily get to see,” said Davis.
Using interviews, newsreels and other documentary footage, documentaries use shock effects to show depict social issues and take them to enter the theaters, houses and minds of the people, according to Davis.
“I’ve got to quote the great Mohamed Ali here,” said Davis at the end of the lecture that was hosted by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “‘Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I hope that our documentaries on dissent sting like a bee.”
Documentaries like Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” on gun control or his latest political message in “Fahrenheit 9/11” continued to question political issues and uncover trends or hot social topics during the last few years.
“Through documentaries we ask questions like ‘Are some of us worth more than the rest of us?'” said Davis.
Barbara Trent, producer-director of “The Panama Deception” which describes the 1989 invasion of Panama, said, “We have to educate young people, for some of us are getting tired…and old.”
After each viewing of her documentaries in movie theaters Trent provided initiatives the audience could be part of. She believes people would rather see documentaries over movies. “The public isn’t stupid! They are ill-informed, but they aren’t stupid.”
According to Trent, documentaries supplement the media. “The coverage the media gave the invasion of panama was totally agreeing with the administrating government. [They] excluded what happened to women and children,” said Trent, who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1992.
The goal of documentaries, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, is to help change conditions. “I’ve always been an activist and never considered myself a filmmaker,” said Trent who said, at one point in her life she had been a “welfare mom.”
“Yes, I am an activist. And film is just an amazing tool if we use it that way,” said Trent.
What most documentary filmmakers also have in common is the difficulty in raising money to make the films and in making money after the films are completed.
According to the Associated Press, “Fahrenheit 9/11” cost $6 million to make and became the first documentary to cross the $100 million mark at the domestic box office.
“Clearly, if you make a movie that has this ratio of how much it costs to its gross, you’re going to find an easy time making your next film,” Moore said with his new movie in mind. “Sicko” (2005) will focus on the American healthcare system.
However, throughout the last 10 years, “[making documentaries] got easier as more technical tools are available,” said Rob Epstein, producer of the 1984 Oscar-winning feature “The Times of Harvey Milk”. His film shows the assassination of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
It is a mixture of fast switching scenes, which at times barely leaves the audience with time to capture the pictures. At other times it freezes the camera on a particular interviewee and watches him or her go from a phase of speechlessness to an outbreak of tears.
Crucial for documentary filmmakers is perseverance and a willingness to move on in spite of obstacles, said Trent. Moore said, he would still have continued with his upcoming documentary even if “Fahrenheit 9/11” had not given him the financial boost.
It is the interest and a certain passion for the topic that helps producers stay on it, said Penelope Spheeris, producer of the 1981 documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”. Her film documents a Punk Rock band living in wardrobes of an old church.
“Growing up in Hollywood made me want to cry, wanting to capture it,” said Davis who has covered poverty and racism in other films. “My parents, like many other screenwriters, said ‘studios are interested in fantasy. They don’t want to show the truth.'” Davis determined to show the truth and touch the outcasts of society.
“I was born in a carnival. I have this picture of me hanging out a window, smoking a cigarette, 4-years-old, with a monkey,” said Spheeris. “I guess that’s why I know how to deal with a bunch of crazy people,” she said at the lecture.
The annual John Huston Lecture on Documentary film was named in honor of the famous movie director Huston, who directed movies like “Moby Dick”, “Moulin Rouge” or the Broadway adaption “Annie”. While he served in the Army during World War II, Huston produced the controversial film “Let There Be Light” (1946) which was banned for decades by the U.S. War Department and finally released in 1980.
Part two of “Documentaries of Dissent” is scheduled for 2005 and will focus on 2004 documentaries that have played a critical role in the current political and social debates.
“It’s just cynical that we are here talking on documentaries tonight, while there is a massacre going on in Fallujah, right now,” said Trent.
Asked what advice the producers would give to aspiring documentary filmmakers, Davis, Trent, Epstein and Spheeris contemplated. “Pay attention to the world and don’t get discouraged,” appeals Davis finally. “The level of attention gets so intense and what’s more intense than looking through a camera?”