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Tracers: American Documentaries of the Twenty First Century

 

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Curated by Stephen Shapiro, Warwick\RSC Fellow in Creativity October 2008 - March 2009


The twenty-first century brought a new lesson to Americans: reality bites. With the stock market failures in the wake of the dot.com bust, September 11, and the ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, “a shattered nation,” in the words of satirical magazine The Onion, “longs to care about stupid bullshit again.” The century’s first decade, however, also saw the return to the investigative documentary form and its renewed commercial success (typified by Michael Moore’s box-office receipts) in unexpected ways. This series presents some of the recent attempts by mainly American documentary filmmakers to record and comment on the current moment.

The films were shown on Tuesday evenings during the Autumn and Spring term in 2008/09, with a short introduction and followed by a group discussion. Viewing was free of charge and open to all members of the University community.

Schedule

Term 1

7 October (week 2)
With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America (2004) dir. Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor

14 October (week 3)
Why We Fight (2005) dir. Eugene Jarecki

21 October (week 4)
The Power of Nightmares, (2004) dir. Adam Curtis [parts 1and 2]

28 October (week 5)
The Power of Nightmares, (2004) dir. Adam Curtis [part 3]

11 November (week 7)
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) dir. Errol Morris

18 November (week 8)
Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War (2004); Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006) dir. Robert Greenwald

25 November (week 9)
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004) dir. Robert Greenwald

2 December (week 10)
Control Room (2004) dir. Jehane Noujaim

Term 2

6 January (week 1)
Gunner Palace (2004) dir. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker III

13 January (week 2)
Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company (2006) dir. Michael Epstein

20 January (week 3)
Baghdad ER (2006) dir. Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neil

27 January (week 4)
The Dreams of Sparrows (2005) dir. Haydar Daffar

3 February (week 5)
Startup.com (2001) dir. Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim

17 February (week 7)
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) dir. Alex Gibney

24 Feburary (week 8)
In Debt We Trust (2005) dir. Danny Schechter

3 March (week 9)
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts (2006) dir. Spike Lee [parts 1 and 2]

10 March (week 10)
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts (2006) dir. Spike Lee [part 3 and 4]

 


Synopsis:

With God on our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America (2004) dir. Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor
100 minutes.

An examination of the rise of conservative Christians (especially the Moral Majority) as a political force in America over the last 40 years. It uses interviews with some of the movement’s major figures (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, Ralph Reed and others) to discuss the movement, including the rise of George W. Bush.


Why We Fight (2005) dir. Eugene Jarecki
98 minutes

Named after the series of short films by legendary director Frank Capra that explored America’s reasons for entering World War II, Why We Fight surveys a half-century of military conflicts, asking how a nation of, by and for the people has become the savings-and-loan of a government system whose survival depends on an Orwellian state of constant war. Why We Fight features interviews by a “who’s who” of military and Washington insiders including Senator John McCain, Gore Vidal, and Dan Rather. Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 speech warning of the rise of the "military industrial complex.”


The Power of Nightmares (2004) dir. Adam Curtis
Pts 1 and 2 - 120 minutes, part 3 - 60 minutes.

A BBC documentary film series, which considers the rise of the American Neo-Conservative movement and the radical Islamist movement, making comparisons on their origins and noting strong similarities between the two. More controversially, it argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is in fact a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries—and particularly American Neo-Conservatives—in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies.


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) dir. Errol Morris
95 minutes

In his Oscar-winning documentary, Morris interviews Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and finds a uniquely unsettling viewpoint on much of 20th-century American history. Morris probes the reasons behind the U.S. commitment to the Vietnam War and finds a depressingly inconsistent policy. McNamara himself emerges as clearly haunted by the what-ifs of Vietnam.


Uncovered - The Whole Truth About the Iraq War (2004) Dir. Robert Greenwald
60 minutes


Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006) dir. Robert Greenwald
75 minutes

Robert Greenwald analyzes the reasons given for the invasion of Iraq and then takes you inside the lives of soldiers, truck drivers, widows and children who have been changed forever as a result of profiteering in the reconstruction of Iraq. Iraq for Sale uncovers the connections between private corporations making a killing in Iraq and the decision makers who allow them to do so.


 Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004) dir. Robert Greenwald
114 minutes

Greenwald reveals the secrets of Former Fox news producers, reporters, bookers and writers who expose what it’s like to work for Fox News. This film provides an in-depth look at Fox News and the dangers of ever-enlarging corporations taking control of the public's right to know.


 Control Room (2004) dir. Jehane Noujaim
87 minutes

Control Room is a documentary about the Arab television network Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S.-led Iraqi war, and conflicts that arose in managed perceptions of truth between that news media outlet and the American military.


Gunner Palace (2004) dir. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker III
85 minutes

In this striking documentary shot in 2003, early on in the US-led war on Iraq, a group of American soldiers in Baghdad who have taken over a bombed-out palace that belonged to Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein, offer the camera a view on their world. While they party poolside for most of the day and lead raids on homes of suspected bomb-builders most nights, they also have a lot to say about the war and their situation.


 Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company (2006) dir. Michael Epstein
91 minutes

Combat Diary provides a firsthand account of life and death on the front lines of battle. Shot on home video cameras by the very soldiers who were part of the hardest hit combat unit of the Iraq War, this remarkable program weaves heart-pounding digital camera footage with revealing interviews following the action. From the initial enthusiasm of the newly deployed troops to the dramatic outcomes of their combat missions, the Marines of Lima Company bring the war home from the very heart of battle.


Baghdad ER (2006) dir. Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neil
64 minutes

This verite documentary takes an unforgettable look inside the 86th Combat Support Hospital (CSH), the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Iraq and former site of one of Saddam Hussein’s elite medical facilities. Shot over two months in the summer of 2005, the film puts a human face on the war’s cold casualty statistics, as doctors and nurses fight to save the lives of wounded soldiers who are Medevaced (helicoptered) in a numbingly routine basis. Contains some graphic operating theatre scenes.


The Dreams of Sparrows (2005) dir. Haydar Daffar
74 minutes

The Dreams Of Sparrows follows Iraqi director Hayder Mousa Daffar and his team of contributing filmmakers as they share their vision of life in Baghdad under the US occupation. This is the historic first feature documentary from the IRAQeye Group, a collaboration between American and Iraqi filmmakers. After the capture of Saddam, DAFFAR’S search for the truth takes him through all walks of life in Iraq, and finally into the arts and culture of Baghdad, drawing the viewer into powerful encounters with Iraqi painters, writers and filmmakers. As the film continues, the interviews veer towards the politics of occupation and resistance, concluding with the battle over Falluja and the devastating death of one of the crew members. 


Startup.com (2001) dir. Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
107 minutes

Friends since high school, 20-somethings Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman have an idea: a Web site for people to conduct business with municipal governments. This documentary tracks the rise and fall of govWorks.com from May of 1999 to December of 2000, and the trials the business brings to the relationship of these best friends.


Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) dir. Alex Gibney
109 minutes

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a multidimensional study of one of the biggest business scandals in American history. The chronicle takes a look at one of the greatest corporate disasters in history, in which top executives from the 7th largest company in this country walked away with over one billion dollars, leaving investors and employees with nothing.


In Debt We Trust (2005) dir. Danny Schechter
98 minutes

Just a few decades ago, owing more money than you had in your bank account was the exception, not the rule. Yet, in the last 10 years, consumer debt has doubled and, for the first time, Americans are spending more than they’re saving or making. While many Americans are “maxing out” on credit cards, there is a much deeper story: power is shifting into fewer hands...with frightening consequences. Schechter exposes the mechanisms and machinations behind the hidden financial and political complex that allows even the lowest wage earners to indebt themselves so heavily that house repossessions have become commonplace.


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts (2006) dir. Spike Lee
Pts 1 and 2, 120 minutes.

One year after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, director Spike Lee presents a four-hour, four-part chronicle recounting, through words and images, one of our country’s most profound natural disasters. In addition to revisiting the hours leading up to the arrival of Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane before it hit the coast of Louisiana, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts tells the personal stories of those who lived to tell about it, at the same time exploring the underbelly of a nation where the divide along race and class lines has never been more pronounced.


When the Levees Broke
Parts 3 and 4, 120 minutes