Viewing upwards of 150 films a year, I've lost count of the number of fearless and devastating documentaries I've seen that should have left me fearful and devastated. And since that egregious fraud Michael Moore shuffled on to the big screen in Bowling for Columbine a few years back, audiences in what are known to film distributors as the "key cities" have been even more spoilt for choice, with factual features enjoying what has been called an unexpected golden age of worthy cinematic truth-telling.
By factual features, I mean movies that rely more on news archive and talking heads for their content than on Brad, Angelina and armies of computerised talking bugs. In reality, of course, your average documentary feature is every bit as as predictable as Die Hard 4.0. Like mainstream Hollywood, there hasn't been a single documentary in the current renaissance that has delivered anything other than what was expected from it from the outset. Iraq war? Bad. Gun ownership? Evil. Environment? Going to Hell. Third-world poverty? Your fault, you complacent, capitalist bastard.
The controversy over the US Army's treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo is such grist to the mill of your average documentary-maker, one suspects that if Abu Ghraib hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent it. Of course, there was no need. As one brief line makes clear in director Errol Morris's recently released Standard Operating Procedure - which concentrates on the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as seen in the now famous series of photographs taken by military interrogators - the prison had been established and -operating at full capacity for years under Saddam Hussein. Some 30,000 people were tortured and murdered there before the war, although it's difficult to recall any fearless, devastating attempts at investigation resulting in tearful Oscar speeches during that time. Perhaps our much-lauded, tough--minded, -rigorously questioning -documentary-makers were having a bad patch.
Or, to be fair, it might have been far too risky. If there's one thing that most of the current crop of documentaries have in common, it is that they're risk-free. Nobody will be -going into hiding; no careers will be -ruined. As with political theatre and Hollywood "protest" films, the agenda is set as firmly as the prejudices of the audiences who will be drawn to them. You should know by now what you're going to get. It would, however, be refreshing to be surprised occasionally, or for another view to unexpectedly surface. Neither Morris's film, nor the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which covers similar ground and which has been released on DVD, offer us this.
Both of these films are very well made; in the case of Standard Operating Procedure, almost too well made, in fact. With its lush, menacing score by Danny Elfman (a film composer who specialises in soundtracks of the ersatz Gothic variety), as well as impression-istic dramatic reconstructions and smart graphics, it borders on the glossy. It also has interviews with the soldiers who achieved 15 minutes of global notoriety when they posed for the camera like goons at a theme park - most notably Lynndie England, who, with her dead little eyes and motionless face, looks like Roseanne Barr with the personality cut out. The "little guys" were the fall guys is the gist, although Lynndie goes one step -further and, embarrassingly, claims her love for a bad man (her colleague Charles Graner, still in jail) amounted to duress. Taxi to the Dark Side draws on a similar pool, but is somewhat wider in its reach. Directed by Alex -Gibney, who also made the Oscar-nominated -Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the film surveys what it claims is the Bush ad-ministration's "willingness to undermine -human rights in its prosecution of the ‘war on terror'". It gets as near as dammit to calling the President a war criminal.
The mistake of both films is not to include a dissenting or questioning voice. The fact that the soldiers held responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib were prosecuted and served time is certainly made very clear in the superior Standard Operating Procedure, but could not the point also be made that it is this fact, and indeed the very existence of films such as this, that separates us from those we might be fighting against? That would, of course, reduce the stock of indignation, but, rather like the now famous pro-war speech in David Hare's otherwise righteously anti-war play Stuff Happens, it might give an on-side audience something unexpected to ponder. Polemics - and in all essentials, that is what Taxi to the Dark Side is - can be invigorating, but they really shouldn't masquerade as documentaries, especially when, as here, they appear not to be "authored". At least Michael Moore, like John Pilger before him, puts himself bang up front in his own films, in the spotlight, even if he does spend the rest of the time running away to hide from the intrusive eyes of the media.
But that is the way it is with current mainstream factual feature-making, and there's no reason to expect it will change. What we need is a Taxi to the Bright Side. So where are the centre-right documentarians and polemicists? There is, after all, nothing worse than going to a party only to stand in the kitchen and slag off the other guests. It is not good enough, and simply not true, to suggest that conservatives prefer the printed word to film. Isn't it time there was a feature-length documentary on the world-wide growth of Islamism, which didn't just creep out via the internet? Or a major, Oscar-worthy production telling the true story of Stalin's Terror? -(Astonishingly, there hasn't been one.) Perhaps, even, a rightwing Michael Moore? You might lose one audience, but there'll be a whole new one to gain.