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

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Innocence of Muslims: A Filmmaking Success of the Worst Kind

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What can documentary filmmakers learn from the idiocy of no-talent, hate-mongering hacks and the masses that are moved by them?

Yes, I’m thinking about the violence in the Middle East inspired by the film Innocence of Muslims. I watched what I could of the film, a product of such execrable quality, on YouTube, and found myself, well, impressed, in a way.

When you consider all of the thought and work that goes into grassroots campaigns that are tied to certain documentary films, it’s a mind-freak what the makers of Innocence have achieved. So many nonfiction filmmakers commit themselves to outreach, to screenings in schools and community centers, to websites and rallies and whatnot. All of this in an attempt to inspire interest in a film and its subject.

And what would qualify as a successful campaign? Thirty people attending a lecture? A news clip on a local television station?

And compare that to the impact and attention that Innocence has garnered. Wall-to-wall, global media attention for days. Rallies of thousands in the streets of cities throughout the Middle East. Literally millions talking about this one film.

Tragically, this attention has been of the nothing-but-the-worst kind. And I think it’s because the makers of this film tapped into what few documentary filmmakers can: anger. Dozens have been killed by people whipped into a frenzy of hate against the film, anyone who would insult the Prophet, the West, the USA, you and me.

Why can’t a film have such an immediately direct positive effect on the world? Can’t anger against immorality be harnessed? If only the masses could be as passionate about the unjust neglect and suffering of one child, in the same way those Muslims care about their Prophet.

Take, for example, the release this Wednesday, of filmmaker Pete Nicks’s The Waiting Room, which is primarily a cinéma vérité depiction of the down-and-out folks who end up at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. This is very much a bottom-up story, telling it from the people’s view, how lacking insurance and funds affects people with healthcare needs.

Nicks has developed Storytelling Project, a complement to the film in which he is trying to galvanize communities to discuss their health care needs. In a presidential election year in which health care is a main topic, you’d like to think The Waiting Room could find a lot of traction in the media and in the public consciousness. But will it tap into the anger? Should it? No one would dream it could capture people’s attention the way Innocence has.

And why is that? Here are some thoughts: First, the audience has to be ready. Clearly, there was an audience ready to release its rage. There’s a whole history lesson in this, but the annotated version could come down to this: if generations of a people are underfed and underemployed while your country props up their dictatorial leaders, it’s going to instill resentment over time of a most fundamental kind. If you then try to woo them with your culture and soft drinks, they’re bound to be on edge.

And when they have few places to turn to—few heroes or sources of income, other than the religious zealot around the corner who tells them that anger against the maker of the movie is the same as anger against its nation of origin, then some of them will no doubt listen. (Of course, most Muslims do no heed that call. But enough do.)

We, in America, don’t have similar tinderbox communities, ready to rage. American’s interests and worries are more disparate. Yes, there is plenty of upset about healthcare, but how to direct that rage? The Tea Party has managed to harness some of that anger against so-called Obamacare, but folks also care about jobs, and whether they can buy a new washing machine. The rage is never focused enough to be sustained (see Occupy Wall Street’s gradual demise).

I’m not suggesting documentary filmmakers should shelve their cameras or truck in hate-provoking tactics. But I think that there are lessons here, and there’s value in understanding the obstacles inherent in trying to invoke a response.

What did the makers of Innocence really want to achieve? We’re not entirely sure, but if it’s to spread hate and alienation between Muslims and the rest of the world, they certainly succeeded.

I hope Nicks and The Waiting Room can muster up a fraction of that reaction.

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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
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  • Straniero

    Totally agree with that. One point that is missed, is that this touched more on an international level, if the two documentaries mentioned above were talking about a situation touching people’s lives in all countries and speaks to them, then there may be a reaction. The problem with us (humans) is that ‘sex sells’, there needs to be a flare to spark, touching upon a sensitive subject as making fun of our Prophet (s) is such a subject, I didn’t watch much of ‘Innocence of Muslims’ because just a few minutes into the film I just thought it was poorly made and was made for reactions. Simply silly.

    I guess for a documentary of any kind to make an impact, you gotta have an x-vice president with lots of media attention.

  • Straniero

    Geez no editing on this thing…

    One last thing, I understand tying in the sensationalism of this film with that of a documentary, but I hope that you didn’t see this film as a documentary on the Prophet? I made it seem so in the POV newsletter I got, this to me is a little disconcerting. The film in no way was trying to be try to documenting of any kind.