Do Documentaries with a Cause Really Help?

After the recent Seattle International Film Festival preview of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman (about the sorry state of U.S. schools and who's to blame) the audience (minus a few irate teachers) eagerly applauded the film. But then what? Did they go home, huff and puff about educational inequality for a few days, and then run out of steam? Or did they actually do something? But what would they do anyway, especially if they didn’t already have a child enrolled in school? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and bad publicity’s all it takes to turn things around. On the heels (according to Guggenheim) of Waiting for Superman’s indictment of teachers’ unions, the Washington D.C. teachers’ union ratified a new contract this June that bases pay on results rather than seniority, making it easier to remove poor performers--a big step in making schools better.

On the other hand, consider the impact of Guggenheim’s last documentary, the Oscar-earning, global-warming call to arms, An Inconvenient Truth. A Washington Post blog summed up its effect statistically (based on an NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll). In July 1999 23% of the poll’s respondents said “Global climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action in necessary." By June 2006, after An Inconvenient Truth hit theaters it rose to 29%. In January 2007 the figure peaked at 34%. Yet less than three years later, by December 2009, the number dwindled back down to where it had been in 1999--at 23%. In other words, when it comes to documentaries and their causes, the public’s attention span can be rather short.

And what about 2010 Academy-Award-winning documentary The Cove--a nail-biting mission impossible tasked with exposing the dolphin slaughter occurring in Japan’s Taiji prefecture? Thanks to the international waves the film’s been making since it premiered, Taiji issued a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins. Plus due to public outcry, the originally banned documentary will now be shown in Tokyo theaters, and for the first time Japanese media are covering the topic. Residents in Taiji are also being tested for mercury poisoning. Though The Cove may not have put a permanent stop to the Taiji dolphin trade, it certainly has shaken up the status quo.

Then there’s director Taggart Siegel’s 2010 bee-pocalypse documentary Queen of the Sun; a film that illuminates the global crisis of the vanishing honeybee. You might leave the cinema buzzing about your plans to become a backyard beekeeper, but by the time you get the parking lot your Attack of the Killer Bees phobia may get the better of you. (Or the fact that you know nothing about beekeeping.) But at the very least, Queen of the Sun tells audiences what they can do to help from beekeeping to growing bee-friendly flowers. Though it may be too soon to tell whether the documentary’s buzz will save the bees or not.

So documentaries do stir up change. The question is, however, for how long? Long enough to muster enough momentum to move mountains--like the mountains standing in the way of educational excellence, or environmental progress? Publicity helps, as well as a documentary backed by seasoned activists who know how to champion a cause. Many moviegoers may not flock to see documentaries, but those who do watch them seem easy enough to inspire. What they could probably use more direction. i.e. “We want to help, now tell us what to do.” (Otherwise while watching The A-Team or some other blockbuster we may forget what we were so inspired about.)