Docutopia #6: Patriotic Viewing? 5 Documentaries for Independence Day

On today, the 4th of July, Americans celebrate their independence as a sovereign nation. It’s a day of such folksy traditions as fireworks, parades and barbecues. But let’s not forget the truly revolutionary intent of the founders of these United States, who stated in the Declaration of Independence that people should not only have the freedoms of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but also “to alter or to abolish” any form of government when it becomes “destructive of these ends.” With that in mind, here are 5 documentaries—each from and about a different decade in our recent history—that deserve viewing on this most patriotic of days, as a reminder of America’s values, and the values it’s betrayed.


Punishment Park (1971)

Peter Watkins’ landmark faux-doc is an angry cry of rebellion from the Vietnam era and a quasi-sci-fi political parable that has proven remarkably prescient 40 years later. Used by the Occupy Wall Street movement as a galvanizing piece of agitprop, Punishment Park is set during Nixon’s Presidency and chronicles a new form of justice, in which political dissidents are given the choice to go to prison or participate in law enforcement training exercises in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park. Watkins interweaves ludicrous judicial proceedings, in which a black activist is bound and gagged (an obvious reference to the real-life Bobby Seale), with sequences of bands of hippies trying to survive the desert heat and escape from police in riot gear. The film builds to a tremendous climax in which the British documentary filmmakers behind the camera—and the audiences’ moral surrogates—prove to be inept and completely powerless to prevent a repressive and violently unjust ending for the characters.


The Atomic Café (1982)

A look back at 1950s nuclear naiveté, Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty’s found-footage classic is by turns hilarious and horrifying, examining the propaganda behind fall-out shelters and duck-and-cover drills. Forerunners of Michael Moore’s brand of sardonic satire, the filmmakers load up their documentary with both shocking instances of Cold War paranoia and suited, clean-cut “experts” lying through their immaculately white teeth about the dangers of radiation. The governmental pr they unearth is shockingly irresponsible, and the victims of nuclear-era negligence are widespread, from Bikini Islanders and U.S. soldiers enduring atomic energy tests to kids thinking they’d be safe hiding under their school desks. Made during Reagan’s newly amped-up arms race of the 1980s—and released a year before the Gipper would coin the term “Evil Empire” and propose the Strategic Defense Initiative—The Atomic Café is an ever-timely document of the prevalence of misinformation in our democratic society.


The Panama Deception (1992)

An Oscar winner in 1993, Barbara Trent’s incisive, provocative exposé of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was a revelation in its time and a potent rebuke against the presidency of Bush I. Though unnecessarily narrated by Elizabeth Montgomery, the documentary shows how the U.S. government massacred 4,000 Panamanians to renegotiate its treaties in the Central American country—and not, as the party line would have it, to “liberate” the country from the dictatorial Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Sound familiar? Indeed, the invasion of Panama, the film presciently states, would serve as a test case for the Persian Gulf War and future U.S. military incursions, not only for its shock-and-awe-type brutality and swiftness, but also for the way the U.S. media were turned into cheerleaders for the cause. As one talking head puts it, “The performance of the mainstream news media in the coverage of Panama has been just about total collaboration with the Administration”


The Power of Nightmares (2004)

Adam Curtis’s monumental 3-hour examination of the War on Terror is one of the most compelling and entertaining documentaries about American hegemony. Tracing the neoconservative movement back to the Cold War, Curtis makes a powerful argument that Al Qaeda is essentially a fantasy defined and inflamed by American neocons to preserve their power and rule by fear, from the way they distorted and manipulated the threat of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s to opportunism post-9/11. Curtis also alleges that many terrorist “plots” were not only completely fabricated (and hyped up by John Ashcroft) to instigate paranoia, but were actually based on scenes that Islamic fundamentalists saw in 1998′s “Godzilla.” Scary and funny at the same time, Curtis’s work stands an essential piece of modern counter-propaganda.


Better this World (2011)

A bracing look at crackdowns on civil disobedience, the ubiquity of surveillance and the injustice of our justice system, Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s engrossing docu-thriller couldn’t be more timely in the wake of Occupy crackdowns, drone attacks, and America’s perennial way of suppressing dissent. In this taut, tense story of idealism and betrayal, two boyhood friends go from political neophytes to would-be domestic terrorists, accused of planning violent acts at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Gaining incredible access to the law enforcement officials that arguably entrapped them and the personal struggles of the activists themselves (most powerfully conveyed via official prison phone recordings), this is one real-life story that has as many surprises as a Hollywood screenplay but offers double the outrage. Viewers may never trust their government again. Happy 4th of July!

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