Truth and Storytelling

It's a golden age for documentaries. Michael Moore kick-started the era with crusading films such as Bowling for Columbine and Sicko, fusing serious social commentary with a protagonist who could be identified with by a wider audience than the "God's-eye view" used in magnificent PBS films by Ken Burns, such as The Civil War and Jazz. Burns seeks a resonant "objective" perspective, relating tales of U.S. history as if our lives depended on it (which of course, if you accept that those who forget are doomed to repeat, it does). Moore wants to place us at the story’s center, revealing the insecurities at the heart of American social strife as something that we could all do something about.

Moore and Burns are only the most popular and widely seen of recent documentarians. They stand alongside Errol Morris, whose treatment of the life of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, may be the best analysis of how political rhetoric can mask horrific action; Michael Apted, whose Up series, following the lives of several people since their seventh birthdays in 1964, constitutes a social history of the past 50 years; and most of all the Maysles Brothers, who were among those who invented the form, with films such as Salesman, an astonishing vision of the corruption of commerce and religion, and Grey Gardens, which serves as a mirror image to the myths of Camelot that surround JFK's presidency. All of these films paved the way for recent works fusing factual cinema with an ethical eye.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2011
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