Why Are Iraq War Docs Flopping?

by Anthony Kaufman
October 12, 2006 9:43 AM
3 Comments
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In an article in Slate magazine, I set out to answer the question: Why have the litany of Iraq documentaries had trouble in the conventional marketplace? Whether TV or film, most Iraq docs have struggled to find an audience. And whose fault is it: corporations, the media, you and me? There is, of course, several reasons, ranging from the sheer number of titles to the lack of major institutional support to the apathetic American populace.

What is not in the article, however, is the number of ways that filmmakers are using grassroots ways in which to reach people -- whether or not they're making a significant impact. I talked to a lot of filmmakers for the article, and I felt like it would be a shame not to share some of their strategies and thoughts (from my first draft) with an audience. So here you go...

Robert Greenwald, who has masterminded the grassroots approach with the release of agit-docs such as "Outfoxed" and "WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price," is employing the same model with his latest project, "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers." With the help of liberal partners like MoveOn, Greenwald's legions are holding, by his estimation, 1,500-1,600 screenings at house parties and community centers across the country from Oct 8-14, as part of their "Patriotism over Profit" week.

Focus Features is following the same model, even hiring a former Greenwald employee, Lisa Smithline, to run its grassroots campaign for Patricia Foulkrod's "The Ground Truth," which is also currently holding grassroots screenings across the country.

"If the goal is social change, then there's absolutely no question that alternative distribution is the only way to go," says Greenwald, touting the ability to reach audiences much quicker than conventional distribution routes and tap all types of audiences at free screenings. "There is no possibility that anyone who doesn't agree with you is going to pay $8 to see your movie," he says. And with his videos funded by small and large donors, Greenwald doesn't need to make a profit. "You have to measure your results in terms of political action," he says, "not by every dollar at the box office."

Foulkrod agrees. "I don't think the question is how many people are watching," she says. "I think the question is who is watching." At emotional screenings around the country, she has witnessed crying mothers aching for their children soldiers and Republican men opening up to the problems of the war. "Like the rest of this country, I want quick results," says Foulkrod. "But I don't think you can see what's happening when you're in the middle of it. We forget how long Vietnam was."

Dan Lohaus, director of "When I Came Home," which chronicles the plight of homeless Iraq veterans, doesn't have distribution for his film, but continues to take it to film festivals, and plans to work with the Center for American Progress to hold screenings around Veterans Day. "The last thing I'm going to do is sit on the film and wait for a distribution deal," he says. "The mission is to get Iraq veterans who are homeless off the street and we're going to keep pushing."

Best of luck to all of them.

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3 Comments

  • Rick Winston | October 19, 2006 5:56 AMReply

    Here in Montpeier, Vermont we just had a very disappointing run of THE WAR TAPES, even though there is a "local angle" (guardsmen form NH, producer living nearby). We even offered free admission to Natl. Guard members. I can't help thinking that there is some form of "battle fatigue" going on out there. Some people have said, "The news is so bad - why should I subject myself to more?" Unfortunately, the war is only the most extreme example, since I have noticed more and more avoidance of challenging and disturbing subjects, e.g. "Heading South." It is really too bad, since as with the profusion of fascinating Holocaust documentaries, there are many separate facets of the Iraq disaster that would make for fascinating viewing.

  • Rashad Ferguson | October 17, 2006 9:33 AMReply

    There is a market for these films as the article pointed out to a few books on the War In Iraq that are doing pretty good. As with any market the producers of said content must find a way to reach them.

    Yes we do live in the age of the dying attention span and the masses have so many important things on their mind such as sports, shoe sales, vacationing etc etc but people do want to know about this stuff.

    I have shown the Ground Truth and When I Came Home trailers to people and both have spark a strong reaction from viewers. Now how many of those viewers went on to find out more about those documentaries is another story.

    With that said, the people behind these films really need to get out there and push these movies. Websites are great but are not interactive enough a blog, or a forum and definitely a podcast would go along way to help. I do not know what Apple approach is but I would definitely try to get those documentaries on the iTunes store and another important feature is showing extended footage via the web maybe the first 10 to 20 mins to suck people in.

    Call up local VA hospitals and centers and see how active there are in the community and set up screenings.

    There is a market for these documentaries it only has to be refined.

  • Paul Cross | October 13, 2006 4:56 AMReply

    One of the reasons why the flms on Iraq do not do well with the public is lack of media support. The main streem media is owned and controlled by Republican conservatives who have no intention of exposing what this Administration is doing strickly for profit and control. Also the American public thinks of this war as something far away that relly has no impact on their daily lives. Of course they are wrong but they don't know how much of an impact it in fact is having. I hope that my new film, Severe Visibility,www.severevisibility.com which deals with the attack on the Pentagon on 9-11 helps to wake up the citizens of this country to how they are being manipulated for big business and politican's to profit.

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