Documentaries are sort of treacherous things. Even the most honest intentions can create a false image simply due to what materials are accessible to the filmmaker. As a result, I tend to favor documentaries that don’t try to make some overarching point but rather honestly tell you a particular part of a particular story from a clearly stated point of view.
For example, I enjoyed Supersize Me not because it was a startling exposé on the dangers of fast food but because Spurlock set the–clearly biased–ground rules in advance. He told you up front he was going to overeat, under-exercise, and otherwise skew things toward their gruesome conclusion. (He dropped that honest in his “30 days” series, unfortunately, making it unwatchable to me.)
I used to be a big fan of Michael Moore, watching “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth” quite dedicatedly, up until the point I realized that, in his world, nothing is more important than the point he’s making. He treated people quite badly on his show–people who did nothing other than allow him access to their world and dare to differ in their opinions. Later I found out how terribly he had slanted his seminal Roger and Me.
Sicko is sort of fascinating, I admit. It’s apparently technically accurate while at the same time, such a blatant insult to the intelligence, one wonders why anyone would bother. When he cites a survey stating that the USA is 36th in world health care, just slightly ahead of Slovenia, one wonders why Americans aren’t flocking to the slightly higher ranked Costa Rica. Or why Canadians, at #30, would so much as dream of coming to the USA for medical treatment. (A touching fictional characterization of this is shown in The Barbarian Invasions.)
He even extols the virtues of Cuba. Cuba! Castro sets up a glossy free health care clinic and a bunch of “useful idiots” flock down and say how wonderful it is, without ever bothering to notice how few Cubans actually get to use it and are relegated to dumps. Cubans come to American on freakin’ doors! And even with the sham front, Cuba still manages to get a lower rating on that survey Moore tries to shame America with.
Besides which, Farenheit 9/11 (the title a stupid and horrible rip-off) stayed in theaters so long a bunch of good indie films and docs never had a shot locally. It’s up there with What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? among films that annoyed me just by being successful enough to take up valuable cinema space. (And you just know they hung on because true believers were dragging their poor friends to see these “life-changing movies”.)
Anyway, the great documentaries aren’t political. Or rather, the great documentaries that ARE political tend to be viewed through a different lens over time. I go to the movies for a lot of reasons, including escaping politics. I’ll take a little movie like Paper Clips or Murderball to show me places and lives I’ve never known, or a Bukowski or Divan to show me people from different walks of life.