By DAVID CRUMM
As supporters of American news media face the fury of a president who seems determined to demonize journalists, several vivid reminders of courageous media professionals are popping up for home viewing, this spring. If you care about this issue—then these are ideal, thought-provoking films for individual viewing and small-group discussion.
The three we are recommending, this week, are:
‘A BOATLOAD OF WILD IRISHMEN’—Icarus Films brings us this fascinating 84-minute movie about the grandfather of documentary filmmaking: Robert Flaherty, best known for directing the hit movie Nanook of the North, which was released in 1922. The Icarus film about Flaherty’s career is available both on DVD and via streaming through Amazon.
- ‘TO TELL THE TRUTH’—Alec Baldwin narrates this two-hour film, divided into one-hour segments, about American documentary filmmakers during the Great Depression—and then the use of government-sponsored films both in Germany and the U.S. during World War II. The film is available as a DVD set from Icarus, via Amazon, with a bonus disk that contains two of the most famous documentaries of the era: John Huston’s Let There Be Light and Anatomy of a Jeep.
- ‘FIVE CAME BACK’—This is a wonderful, new, three-hour documentary series now streaming on NETFLIX in three segments. Praised by The New York Times, the series is a companion to Mark Harris’s fascinating book about American films made with government sponsorship during World War II.
What these films show us—along with the dozens of breathtaking movie clips included within them—are that the struggles over truth and manipulation in non-fiction media are at least a century old. These films also demonstrate the enormous power of American media—in particular American movies (whether shown in theaters or broadcast via other means)—to shape opinions worldwide.
Of course, the current U.S. president is not so discriminating in his tirades against “The Media.” He lumps together his attacks on Hollywood professionals along with network-TV reporters, staffers at major news magazines, newspaper writers and journalists in other formats. The president is non-discriminating in his fury. He slams anyone who dares to question his own actions and statements.
The three documentaries we are recommending here explore three different and equally important eras in Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with telling the truth.
FLAHERTY—BIRTH OF ‘DOCUMENTARIES’
Filmmakers have been trying to capture “real life” since Eadweard Muybridge began making experimental “moving photos” of humans and animals in the 1880s. By the 1890s, Thomas Edison was capturing film clips inside a studio and, in 1895, the Lumiere brothers stunned the world by moving their cameras outside. One of the landmarks of early cinema was a short Lumiere movie of a locomotive arriving at a station, which caused some viewers to leap out of their seats before they were hit by the looming train!
Very quickly, however, moviemakers began focusing on popular entertainers, especially Vaudevillians, comedians and actors from the stage. It wasn’t until the 1920s that major figures in the film world began to establish a separate genre of movies called “documentaries.” In fact, the term was coined by an influential film critic in Scotland, John Grierson, who used it to describe the work of an American: Robert Flaherty.
Icarus Films’ Boatload of Wild Irishmen makes it clear why this era is far more than a tidbit of historical trivia. When pioneering moviemakers like Flaherty began circling the planet, trying to capture footage of remote native communities, they had no ethical rules to follow. Along the way, they felt free to dramatically change the communities they filmed. The “boat” in the title refers to an infamous scene in which Flaherty convinced three men to launch their tiny boat in the middle of a storm, nearly killing the men in the process.
What is fascinating in Boatload is the way descendants of the original native communities, a century later, tend to describe these early movies with great nostalgia and pride. While later critics savaged directors like Flaherty for endangering people and sometimes faking their scenes of “real life,” the descendants point out that no one else ever showed up to document their lives. These early movies now are treasures of their past.
In one South Pacific village, a descendant of men and women filmed by Flaherty tells us that, despite the flaws pointed out by later critics, “We can still see our fathers and grandfathers when they were young. … That’s why the film is so important to us.” No one else in Hollywood—or most of the U.S.—showed any interest in the challenges of island life.
Says another descendant of Flaherty’s feature: “This film is our film. It belongs to this village!”
Sometimes, it seems, factual flaws are not fatal—if the essential, human message is authentically captured. There ethical issues involved are far more nuanced than most viewers realize.
DEPRESSION & RESISTANCE
If you’re serious about exploring these crucial ethical issues—and especially if you plan to organize a small-group discussion—then you’ll also want to get Icarus’s set of two, hour-long segments grouped under the title To Tell the Truth.
The first hour covers the courageous young filmmakers who put themselves in harm’s way during the 1920s and the Great Depression to capture footage of demonstrations, marches and even brutal police crackdowns on protest. All of those dramatic, historical movie clips you’ve glimpsed over the years, perhaps when viewing TV shows about this era, involved some brave soul wading into dangerous situations with bulky cameras.
The second hour covers aspects of filmmaking during World War II that are curiously absent from the final series we are recommending, streamed by NETFLIX.
That new streaming series, called Five Came Home, is a big-budget, three-hour look at five famous Hollywood directors caught up in World War II. But watching NETFLIX, it’s easy to think that they were the only film crews producing movies throughout the war. Of course, that wasn’t true—as the Icarus documentary points out.
In fact, as the three-hour series unfolds, we learn that the five Hollywood directors who went to war were tragically ill prepared to capture the kind of truthful films they dreamed of producing.
‘FIVE CAME HOME’
Five Came Home certainly is dazzling, featuring amazing still photos and historical film clips gathered for this production! If you care about WWII history, or classic film, you’ll be pointing at the screen repeatedly as famous people and events flash past.
It’s easy to forget the underlying lesson here: The relationship between truth and media is always complicated and often flawed.
Ironically, the new U.S. President’s chief Hollywood critic, Meryl Streep, is the main narrator for Five Came Home. What we learn from her narration is that all five directors, including John Huston and Frank Capra, were fully committed to filming truthful stories that would help defeat the Axis powers and end the war. But, before each director was able to achieve anything close to that goal, each man wound up bumbling and stumbling over a host of obstacles.
The only conclusion one can draw from the lives—and the legacies—of these Hollywood directors is that they cared so deeply about truth that they paid dire costs to portray it on screen.
Some injuries were physical. John Ford was shot in the leg. William Wyler lost nearly all of his hearing. Their three movie-making colleagues suffered other kinds of wounds. John Huston poured himself into directing Let There Be Light, the first honest look at post-traumatic stress among WWII veterans—only to find the movie seized by the U.S. Army as dangerously un-American and suppressed for several decades. George Stevens’ film footage of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp was used to help convict the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. But, Stevens’ intense immersion in documenting the Holocaust left him traumatized.
Overall, this is an inspiring story for those of us who admire media professionals. Despite their early mistakes and, in some cases, errors sparked by their own ambitions—truth won out in the work of all five directors.
That’s why we are recommending all three sets of documentaries, this week. Each presents a different perspective on the enormous challenge media professionals face in trying to portray the truth. We are journalists ourselves, here at ReadTheSpirit, and we encourage you to enjoy as many of these offerings as you can.
This ongoing conflict between truth and the real-world demands of mass media is an ongoing struggle. We all need to understand the risks and costs involved.