Doc Soup: What Can We Learn About an Election From Docs?

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Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

Tom RostonWell, it’s election week and certainly in my lifetime, it’s never felt like more was stake. I know a lot of people are already getting ready to celebrate an Obama victory, but I’m not. Nothing, in my mind, can be taken for granted — especially when it comes to politics. So, what, from the world of documentaries, can we learn about an election? As Amanda has noted, War Room is the sounding board for all election-related docs. Have you seen it lately? It really does hold up — its strongest value, I think, being that D.A. Pennebaker was in the right place at the right time. It’s all about access on this one. It thrillingly tells the story of the exciting Clinton campaign from the inside. (For a portrait of elections from the ground up, POV’s Election Day was really good, I should add.)

Vote buttonAnd have you heard that actor Edward Norton is producing a War Room-type doc, following the Obama campaign? It’s being helmed by newbie documentary directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sims. Will this be the next War Room? Or much more? It certainly has the potential to be. The last I heard, HBO is rumored to be circling the film, with the intent of airing it in the early part of 2009. That’ll be a must-see.

As for docs about Obama that are worth seeing, well, did you catch the Obamamercial? Jeez, that was some good filmmaking; from the dramatic lighting, to the score that sounded like it came from John Williams, to exquisite staging, such as a presidential-looking Obama sitting in an Oval-office-like office. And then the stories about the suburban mom and the senior citizens — it’s just about the best bit of propaganda filmmaking I’ve ever seen. And when I say propaganda, I’m not using the term pejoratively — I personally believe in Obama’s message, and I was totally moved by some of the stories in the infomercial. But just because I think it’s right doesn’t mean I can’t see that it was the definition of the word:
Propaganda: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.

That’s what it was. And by implementing some of the best tools of documentary filmmaking — great characters, knowing where to put the camera, seamless editing, moving music — it makes a powerful case. In fact, if you’ve checked out the Obama website, you’ll see that this is just the latest in a series of his campaign’s slick, powerful docs. My favorite is the forboding one about McCain’s connections to the Savings & Loan scandal. Scary!

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki