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The Doctrine of Fear and the New Documentary Aesthetic: Hijacking Catastrophe

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IRAQ WAR CULTURE REVIEW. Hijacking Catastrophe is effective because, by cleverly cherry-picking its various appropriations and adaptations, it renders itself “real” and “authentic” while simultaneously capitalizing on the new multimedia-obsessed human need not only to belong, but also to be “in the know.”

Janice Morris

“It’s the year of the documentary. Again.” Tom Charity, "The New Face of Documentary"

“[Filmmakers are] using the camera like a gun . . . as a tool for social change.” Jacques Bensimon, quoted in Charity

Hot on the trail of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and William Karel’s The World According to Bush comes co-directors Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp’s documentary Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire, the latest scathing addition to the body of documentaries indicting the Bush Administration, neo-conservatism, and the so-called “doctrine of fear” post-9/11. Hijacking Catastrophe presents the Bush Administration’s manipulation of “intelligence, political imagery, and the fears of the American people after 9/11” to justify the war in Iraq. Moreover, the film places the Bush Administration in the middle of what Jhally and Earp assert is a two-decades-long neo-conservative struggle radically to increase defense spending and transform the global, post-Cold War world order through an American imperialistic project steeped in military force and dominance. Drawing on the testimony of over twenty prominent political and military observers, theorists, and writers, Hijacking Catastrophe’s blistering 64-minute pace allows little intellectual wiggle room in assessing the costs, consequences, and connections of, and between, fear-mongering and American empire-building. However, the very nature of documentary filmmaking necessarily raises questions of truth, authenticity, and the social practice of film.

Documentaries are popping up all over. Last year, it was The Fog of War, Super Size Me, and Capturing the Friedmans. Before that, it was Bowling for Columbine, Dogtown, Z Boys, Crumb, Hoop Dreams, and Roger and Me. The trend toward “realness” is undeniable. Or is it? A recent National Film Board survey rated documentaries second only to Hollywood movies in attracting the coveted 18-25 year old demographic, contradicting the long-held belief that documentaries appeal only to the over-50 crowd. Attendance was up 40 percent at Toronto’s 2004 HotDocs festival, and the 2004 Vancouver International Film Festival, with a slate of one hundred documentaries, hosted more non-fiction films than ever before. The desire for “reality” seems stronger than ever. As Velcrow Ripper (director of the documentary Scared-Sacred, winner of the Special Jury prize at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival) contends, “There’s a growing disillusionment with mainstream news sources [which are] seen as secretly biased.” However, the bleeding of what traditionally have been narrative film, independent film, television, and multi-media styles and techniques into the world of documentary filmmaking raises the question, was French filmmaker Agnes Varda right when she coined the term “docu-liar”? Are documentary audiences actually the unwitting victims of what Jhally and Earp accuse neo-conservatives of - manipulations in intelligence, political imagery, and fear?

The documentary mode depends on two basic assumptions. First, documentary images provide evidence of a reality that actually exists/existed outside the world of the film, and second, documentaries deal with objective facts, whereas narrative films, even when depicting actual events, deal in subjectivities (of characters, of points of view). Evolving as they have through their own stages of development (from the “primitive/formative” documentaries of the 1920s, to the “classical” documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s, to the “revisionist/critical” documentaries of the 1950s and 1960s, to the “parodic/reflexive” documentaries of the current era), documentaries draw their potency from the editing of image and soundtrack, as well as the varying degrees of relationship between argument/interpretation and evidence/reality. Hijacking Catastrophe appears to work in the classical documentary mode, in that it seems to draw on the non-fiction film convention of providing a public service by expressing significant social truths. However, Hijacking Catastrophe contravenes some of the chief tenets of the classical mode, namely that the viewer should not be aware of the filmmaking process and, furthermore, the assumption that the filmmaking process does not affect the filmed events. Indeed, it is these contraventions of the classical mode that draw out Hijacking Catastrophe’s (perhaps unintended) relevance, both cinematically and socially: while documentaries do photograph and record a reality that exists/existed, they are also deliberately and purposefully creating a particular interpretation of that reality.

Hijacking Catastrophe is undeniably a film of appropriation, working on multiple levels to incorporate and meld the styles and techniques of narrative film, non-fiction film, and television, with the technology of independent filmmaking, and the consumerist zeal of multi-media. This appropriation allows Hijacking Catastrophe to stay true to the requirements of its documentary aesthetic, while working subliminally to render itself undisputedly “real” and “authentic.” At the same time as it borrows from the American Cinema Vérité movement (hand-held cameras, zoom lenses, wide angles, telephoto lenses, fast film stocks, and available lighting), so too does Hijacking Catastrophe rely on the independent-film-friendly technology of digital video (DV). The vérité method and “DV look” work in concert to imply the aesthetic of low-budget filmmaking that presumably cannot afford—artistically and financially—artificial constructions of reality. This “new” documentary aesthetic would seem to reject the notion of a pre-planned, scripted presentation in favour of the wholly authentic and spontaneous. However, Hijacking Catastrophe does anything but. At its core, Hijacking Catastrophe relies on three ingredients — archival footage, testimony, and voice-over narration. In almost all cases, it uses only archival footage presented in long shots.

The result is intentionally realistic in appearance, adhering to the documentarians' agenda of “realness” by seemingly providing the most unobtrusive vantage point from which viewers may concentrate on the subject matter, with as little interference or distraction as possible. However, the reliance on the long shot has the added intentional effect (narratively speaking) of distancing the viewer emotionally from the subject (usually George W. Bush), so that whatever contemplation on the subject is at work, it is neither too concentrated nor too rigorous. Furthermore, the constant quick edits throughout can only be described as purposely undercutting any realistic effect, to the extent that, at times, the film hovers toward the opposite end of the film spectrum—the thematic montage distinct to formalism. While the viewer is unlikely to be consciously aware of the various competing modes of filmmaking at work, the pseudo-realistic result is undeniably destabilizing. Moreover, while the viewer likely understands that the footage is archival and not newly filmed by the directors, its frenetic, MTV-style pace obscures this understanding, so that the supposed unobstructed, undistracted vantage point of the viewer is completely, intentionally subverted. Viewers are not meant to look for deep personal truths or form personal connections with facts alone.

If there is any question as to the veracity of the “reality” being presented, there is certainly no question as to how Jhally and Earp intend that reality to be interpreted. Drawing as it does on over twenty political and military observers, theorists, and writers, Hijacking Catastrophe intentionally leaves little room for debate. Unlike the presentation of archival footage that relies on the series of quick (under)cuts, expert testimony is paced methodically and thoughtfully, relying instead on a relentless series of consistent expert opinions. The constant intrusion of names, titles, and latest publication below each speaker (complete with “low-budget” (read: “authentic”) bargain-basement font), not to mention the various competing agendas the viewer apparently isn’t meant to contemplate too closely, are problematic (one begins to wonder if the intent is to document, or to advertise the latest partisan book club). However, the more powerful result is an overall effect that is decidedly news-like, intentionally appropriating and adapting the rhetoric and stance of the newscast(er) in filling the void Ripper perceives between mainstream news sources and a disillusioned viewing public.

More problematic though is the film’s website ( Sponsored by the organization behind the film’s production, the Media Education Foundation, one has to wonder if the website is living up to the Foundation's own motto (“challenging media”). The site is what can only be described as an at-times bizarre conflation of public relations (film clips and film stills, interviews, fact sheets, biographies, and press kits), the “movies” (“Gripping” says the San Francisco Chronicle), the political (analysis of Bush Administration policy), education (a 58-page teacher’s “Discussion Guide” to teach a 64-minute movie), media theory, commercial enterprise (links to purchase the film “for only $19.95” are on almost every page of the site), and perhaps most significantly, entertainment. Want to access this film on cable access? No problem. Click here. Hold a house party? Dorm party? No problem. Click there. Need an entertainment kit? No problem. Click again. How about some posters? Download here. Want to order that book the Pentagon whistleblower wrote? Right this way.

It isn’t difficult to find common ground with the facts of Hijacking Catastrophe — how a narrow focus on intelligence failures has blocked serious scrutiny of the radical neo-conservative agenda, how the invasion of Iraq fits into a larger imperialistic project “to obtain a military footprint in the resource-rich Middle East,” how “warrior rhetoric and macho imagery have concealed both the intellectual origins and motives of current foreign policy,” and certainly how the doctrine of fear and terror has been aggressively deployed by the Bush Administration as its weapon of choice against public debate. The Bush Administration and the neo-conservatives would seem to be actively engaging in manipulations of intelligence, political imagery, and fear as Jhally and Earp's documentary asserts. However, working as it does to combine the modes, techniques, and styles of film, television, and multi-media, Hijacking Catastrophe could be accused of the same, manipulating viewer intelligence, political imagery, and fear—fear of political ignorance, of complicity, or of simply being the only one “left out” of prevailing versions of the “truth.” As Graeme Turner asserts, film is a complex result of several systems of signification, and meaning is derived through combining systems, either in complementing one another, or, in the case of deliberate attempts to obscure and destabilize, in conflicting with one another.

Hijacking Catastrophe is effective precisely because, in so cleverly cherry-picking its various appropriations and adaptations at will, it renders itself “real” and “authentic” while simultaneously capitalizing on the new multi-media-obsessed human need not only to belong, but also to be “in the know.” The documentary mode feeds the viewer's desire to counter the disillusionment with mainstream media Ripper detects by “owning” the film's content and subsequently integrating oneself as a living part of its form. Indeed, following on Ripper's assertion, the documentary viewer’s innate need to have his ideas, thoughts, and opinions validated in the eyes of the public media with which he is supposedly disillusioned is always at play. Thus, if Jacques Bensimon is right and documentary filmmakers are using the camera as a gun for social change, blanks often will do the trick.

Janice Morris is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

Copyright © 2005 by Janice Morris. All rights reserved.

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