No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.
We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
In his close looks at how systems function, the esteemed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman favors the fly-on-the-wall style. Some of those systems are as large as Madison Square Garden or the Paris Opera ballet, some as small as a homely boxing gym in Austin, Texas. Given his free-ranging curiosity about subject matter, it’s surprising it took Wiseman this long—At Berkeley is his 42nd film—to come to a major U.S. university. But it turns out his timing was very, very good.
The film was shot in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, not long after the housing bubble and recession; the school now gets a fraction of its former state funding. Wiseman finds administrators scrambling to make ends meet and students searching for ways to voice their fury about rising tuition at a once-free public institution. It will take Wiseman just over four hours to burrow through the layers of life at Cal, and the length allows him to challenge your expectations of what a 21st-century university must be like.