A Liberal Power Trip: Real Capitalism at the Movies

Michael Giberson

A documentary on the media, Orwell Rolls Over in his Grave, opens today in the Washington, D.C., area, reminding me of the recent newspaper story in the Washington Post about the dominance of left-leaning view points in documentary movies (“Liberal Documentarians Are the Reel Majority“). The newspaper article by Tommy Nguyen asks why, while right wing viewpoints dominate talk radio and bookstores, documentaries seem to be almost exclusively from the left.

The views presented in the article don’t seem too thoughtful. In brief: from the left, documentaries come from the left because conservatives aren’t interested in changing the world; from the right, conservatives can’t get documentaries made because they don’t have friends in Hollywood. Read the article if you want the nuances.

I like the idea of political filmmaking in theory. In order to persuade other folks of your positions, you’ve got to connect up what you believe with what they value. It is a process more of rhetoric than rationality, and the rhetorical tools available in film are much richer than those available in print.

But a lot of political documentaries fall flat – failing as art, failing as a rhetorical effort. No one is persuaded. Judging from reactions, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 falls into this category, though I haven’t seen it.

The other day during a late-night link-drunk blog crawl, I stumbled across remarks by Terry Teachout that seemed to get at the problem:

The insurmountable problem of explicitly political art, it seems to me, is that it is, literally, exclusive. As a result, it fails in what I take to be one of the defining responsibilities of aesthetically serious art, which is to aspire to universality, speaking (at least potentially) to all men in all conditions.

The only way art can do this is by reposing, in Dr. Johnson’s immortal words, on the stability of truth. By embodying and dramatizing truth, it brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition. And might such an enterprise be political? In a way, I suppose, though one must never forget that political opinions are epiphenomenal: they arise from experience rather than preceding it. (If they don’t, those who hold them are by definition out of touch with reality.)

Yes, political opinions arise from experience, and an effective documentary offers a bit of experience in a way that “brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition.” Anything that changes a person’s understanding of “the nature of the human condition,” is bound to have some political effects.

Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, though not an explicitly political movie, can contribute to a viewer’s understanding of the social nature of truth and the limitations of the legal process to uncover what “actually happened.” Unlike the naive view that the “truth is out there” waiting for discovery, the documentary offers a more complicated perspective that should have political consequences.

Actually, I found Michael Moore’s Roger and Me to be both entertaining and effective social and political commentary about the interrelations between corporations and communities.

But the one of the best documentaries I’ve seen is Power Trip, by Paul Devlin. Devlin’s film tells the story of the efforts of AES Corporation to succeed as the new owners of the privatized electric utility in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Again, this is not explicitly a political film, but the viewer comes away with a better sense of the nature of the human condition.

The film offers a perspective on capitalism and corporations hard to get in the Western world, because in the West so much of the institutional framework is taken for granted. In the beginning only 10 percent of Tbilisi customers were paying their electric bills, because they were used to power being “free” (i.e. provided by the government). Of course, electric power was also unreliable (unless you had good political connections). In Power Trip you can get a flavor of such abstract phrases as “institutional framework,” and why they might matter to making the world a better place.

Should be required viewing for international development professionals and students of comparative economic systems, development studies, or the economics of institutions. Actually, everybody should go see it.