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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Political minefield at the multiplex
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Chris Cooper in Silver City
Cinema once provided a haven of escapism, but in the US, at least, the multiplex is fast becoming a political minefield.

Dissatisfaction in some quarters over President Bush's administration has led to an unprecedented number of political films making their debut in 2004.

With presidential elections looming in November, Hollywood has been swift to cash in.

A surge in political documentary film-making has spawned such diverse projects as Outfoxed, Bush's Brain and Control Room, a sympathetic portrayal of the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera and its coverage of the war in Iraq.

But where these low-budget, albeit topical, films might typically have been crushed at the box office by summer blockbusters, they have been propelled to public attention by the success of Fahrenheit 9/11.

Common theme

Michael Moore's caustic documentary, which won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is a deliberate attempt to ruin George W Bush's chances of re-election.

Michael Moore
Moore was an unofficial speaker at the four-day Democratic convention

Democratic supporters queued for up to five hours to hear the film-maker speak at the Democratic Convention in Boston, waging his war on "the unelected side who occupy the White House".

Not all the films are so overt in their determination to change the course of politics, but nearly all the current crop of political documentaries are critical of Bush and his administration.

And the public is listening. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism recently gained a cinema release in the US after the DVD became an unexpected best-seller.

The inflammatory documentary, by liberal film-maker Robert Greenwald, attacks the US TV network Fox for its alleged right-wing bias, while also raising the dangers of large corporations running news outlets.

Like Moore's film, it was screened at the Democratic Convention.

Like Fahrenheit 9/11 it raises questions about the principles of news reporting - and whether documentary film-makers are now filling the void left by US news networks.

Control Room's director Jehane Noujaim said: "There's no possible way to watch one television station and feel like you're getting the complete truth."

What it's saying is, here are the reasons we were given to go to war and here's why these reasons where not accurate. Fact, not opinion
Robert Greenwald, film-maker

Outfoxed director Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War claims the Bush administration misrepresented its reasons for going to war - exposing questions which many film-makers claim journalists failed to ask.

Part of a low-budget trilogy which explores the Bush presidency, it has sold over 100,00 DVD copies via the internet.

"It's not telling you who to vote for or who not to vote for. What it's saying is, here are the reasons we were given to go to war and here's why these reasons where not accurate. Fact, not opinion," Greenwald told BBC World's Talking Movies.

Persons of Interest examines the US government's detention of Arab and Muslim immigrants following the 11 September attacks. Openly partisan, it says the government is deliberately flouting civil rights.

"I think there is a fundamental belief that things work and that the government's actions are based on intelligence, and that wasn't the case at all with these detentions - I want people to know that," director Tobias Perse told Talking Movies.

'Messy and annoying'

Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate
Streep portrays a ruthless senator in The Manchurian Candidate

It is not only documentaries gunning for Bush. A remake of The Manchurian Candidate recently topped the US box office.

Despite star turns from Meryl Streep as a manipulative senator and Denzel Washington as a maligned war veteran, the chief villain is a multi-national corporation with a strong financial interest in national defence.

It appears to be a clear reference to Halliburton, the US conglomerate with close ties to George Bush's administration.

Director Jonathan Demme insists the film is foremost a psychological thriller but nonetheless hopes it might "get people talking about what is going on in this country".

"Politics is messy, complicated and annoying," says director John Sayles, whose murder-mystery Silver City is due out in September. It is about the dim-witted son of a powerful senator running for public office with the backing of the oil industry. He admits it is based on George W Bush.

"Most people can only get it together once every four years to be interested, so this is the one window where you can get their attention," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Counter attack

Republican film-makers are planning a counter attack.

Disney's Heart and Soul
Patriotic documentary America's Heart & Soul was released in July

The American Film Renaissance, a two-day festival in Dallas in September, will be the first major forum "dedicated to celebrating pro-American values, messages and themes".

Some 20 films will be shown, including premieres of Michael Moore Hates America, from Michael Wilson, and the bigger-budget Michael & Me, from radio host Larry Elder.

"Moore has a point of view and he's doing what he should do - getting it out there," James Hubbard, lawyer and backer of the festival, told the UK's Daily Telegraph.

"It's time for conservative creators to do the same."


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