Exposing Truth One Film at a Time
Paper by Olivia Spaulding. Viewed on DVD.
Today’s society has so many problems that people are constantly trying to make others aware of. With protesting, advertising, and public speaking, many people all across America are trying to spread the word of various social problems and attempting to make a change in the world. One of the most affective and efficient ways of spreading the word and making a change is through the use of documentary films. Documentary films have many uses, but their use to expose things to the public is a key use and can be seen in a great deal of documentaries. The United States is known for being ignorant or blind to situations going on in society, so it is extremely important for people to have some way of seeing what exactly is happening in the world. There are so many issues or things hidden that documentary films can unfold and show audiences to promote change. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Gibney, 2005) is a documentary that exposes the Enron scandal and shows the United States what this company was really doing. No End in Sight (Ferguson, 2007), a documentary showing the real story behind America’s occupying Iraq, makes society aware of misinterpreted and twisted war. Waiting for “Superman” uncovers the failing American public education system and promotes change with hope and ideas for the future. These documentaries are all made in hope to make others aware of what is really going on in the world, and in hope that once people see what is truly going on, they will help in the efforts of changing the world. Using documentary films, filmmakers are able to expose people and events for what they really are and promote social change by showing audiences what they don’t know, as seen in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, No End in Sight, and Waiting for “Superman”.
Documentary films play a huge part in national or worldwide scandals and, in fact, many documentary filmmakers thrive over scandals. This is because when a scandal occurs, society is fascinated and eager to learn what happened. However, they usually only hear the things that are published in the news and do not get the full story. This changes once a documentary filmmaker makes a film about it, covering the whole story, getting all the juicy details, and revealing it to society. The Enron scandal is a phenomenal example of this. Enron, the former seventh largest energy company in America, began in 1985 (Levin 32). Though it is known that the company was bad from the beginning, no one realized just how bad until it become the United States largest corporate bankruptcy in history (Levin 32). Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, directed by Alex Gibney and based on the book with the same name, reveals this colossal scandal and shows America just how horrible this company was. The film begins with, “it took sixteen years to build Enron but only twenty-four days for it to go bankrupt” (Levin 31). Gibney focuses the film on the idea that the company was never good, and it wasn’t a story of good gone bad. Instead, he reveals that Enron was corrupt from the beginning but people just ignored it and let thing slide until it was too late. This is an extremely important focus and idea in this film because it allows people to watch this and realize this tend to let things slide happens far too often, and if corruption isn’t put to a stop at first sign then it can eventually lead to something as terrible as Enron’s bankruptcy. The film interviews many different people, including the brave and unaware employees of Enron who, though ashamed they were even involved in such a company, step forward and tell their stories. Gibney says these employees “put a human face to the story” (Levin 33), which is very important in making this documentary successful. People understand things and are more willing to really listen if they can relate so by making this story more relatable and showing people that this could happen to anyone makes audiences more aware of just how detrimental this scandal truly is. This film does a great job of exposing Enron’s executive team, who are to blame for the bankruptcy of the company. The three in particular that are focused on in this film are Chief Operating Officer Jeff Skilling, Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow, and Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Kay, all of which refused to be interviewed for the film (Levin 33). Since their part in the scandal is so crucial for the audience to see, it was necessary for Gibney to incorporate their roles somehow. He did this by using original footage of them, so that the audience could see them first handed, rather than using staged footage that wouldn’t get the point across as well (Levin 33). This strategy of using original footage makes the audience not even notice that they aren’t interviewed, and exposes these people who led to the bankruptcy of Enron. Gibney uses this film to expose Enron to the society and show audiences what really happened in this scandal. By using different facts and information he informs people of what happened, and by interviewing people involved in the scandal he puts faces to the scandal and allows people to relate to them and realize how terrible this truly was. Using this documentary, people can know see what happened in the Enron scandal and can see what could happen in the future with big corporations.
Along with scandals, war is something that documentary filmmakers use often to make films. War is such a popular thing to make a documentary on, part because it is so influential in the world and people need to know what is going on, and part because there tends to always be a war going on somewhere. So what happens when you combine scandal and war? This is what we see in No End in Sight, a film by Charles Ferguson. This documentary deals with America’s invasion of Iraq, not as a normal war film does, but an investigation (Carruthers 13). Some of America was already concerned about the reasons behind entering this war when we first entered, but no one really knew what exactly was going on. Ferguson made this film to expose the invasion of Iraq for what it really was to the people of America, as it should be their right to know what is happening in the country. The film goes their different chronological chapters leading up to the invasion to give background information for those misinformed Americans, since unfortunately there are many who fall under that category. The main emphasis seen in this film is on the “three fateful decisions” made by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (Carruthers 13). These three decisions are exposed as being “the abandonment of a proposed interim Iraqi authority; de-Baathification; and the dissolution of the Iraqi military, which overnight created a resentful reservoir of half a million unemployed men” (Carruthers 13”. Ferguson attempted to interview the chief suspects for the film, but none of them allowed him to interview them. Instead of letting this crucial part of the film make for an unfinished story, Ferguson turned this around and pointed out that the lack of interviews of these people only justifies that they are not reliable and tend to go missing at the most important times (Carruthers 13). Ferguson makes the film surround the idea that the biggest mistake of all was the decision to invade Iraq, as the real reasoning for this invasion has never been made clear. The film includes interviews with not only anti-Bush civilians, but also many former Bush supporters. This allows the film to feel less bias and lets people be more open about the ideas presented in the film, since it is not only people who were always against Bush telling their stories. Ferguson uses information, interviews, and persuasive facts to expose America’s invasion of Iraq as an unknown and misunderstood thing that people need to realize didn’t happen for the reasons they believe.
Documentaries are extremely important in the use of exposing social problems that happen in everyday life that affect so many Americans. Of course war and scandals affect Americans, but there are also those problems that occur every day, that affect lives every day, but still need to be exposed to the public with the real truth and facts about these problems. One social problem that affects so many Americans and has so many hidden facts is the many problems with the public education system. Waiting for “Superman”, directed by Davis Guggenheim, is a documentary that, through the lives of five children and their parents, exposes the failing public school system. This film follows these children through the process of finding a high-performing charter school that will better their education much more than the public school they currently attend. These five children are very different and can all be related to, which makes the audience feel their pain so much more. All of these children are smart children with a good head on their shoulders, so when watching their stories it is impossible to want nothing but the best for them. However, as we learn through this film, public schools are clearly not the best option. Guggenheim throws many different statistics out, many of which are jaw dropping statements, which helps the audience see just how terrible public schools are doing and how much they need improvement. The film emphasizes the idea of teachers’ unions the way they are now corrupting public schools and that if they are not stopped they “will inflict serious damage upon the lives of every public school children” (Olorunda 163). With many important facts and information like this, the film truly revolves around these five children and their journeys to get accepted into charter schools through “a lottery system where balls are bounced and numbers are called and dreams are dashed and lives are lost” (Olorunda 164).
The five children followed in this film, four from low-income neighborhoods, all want the same thing: better education and a greater chance for a successful future. The children followed are in kindergarten, first grade, two in fifth grade, and eighth grade, so the audience can see that these problems are happening for so many Americans all throughout different grades of public school (Olorunda 165). Anthony, a fifth grader living in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C., lost his father and doesn’t know his mother. Since he doesn’t have his parents, he lives in a bad neighborhood and attends a bad school he’s never had much motivation to succeed (Olorunda 165). However, after repeating the second grade, he is determined to succeed in life and live the life that nobody thought he could. He hopes to get accepted to SEED Charter School where, opposite to his current public school, 9 out of 10 students go on to college (Olorunda 165). Anthony is a child that many children in America can relate to, with his low-income and broken home lifestyle, so audiences around the country can see his frustration with his unsuccessful public school. That is how so many places and so many schools are around America, yet people continue to go blind to the problems. Emily, an eighth grader and the only child followed that doesn’t live in a low-income neighborhood, has a story much different from Anthony, but very relatable to other Americans. Her local public high school, which she is supposed to attend the next year, tracks students. When students are tracked, they are put into categories and someone that is very intelligent could be placed with someone who doesn’t try nor care in school, just because of test scores. This brings the intelligent students down, doesn’t allow them to perform the best that they can (Olorunda 165). Fortunately, Emily realizes that this is what will happen to her before it does, and decides to check out Summit Preparatory Charter High School, which doesn’t track its students, and therefore “everyone is held to equally high standards and given equal encouragement to attend college “Olorunda 165). The film has a happy ending for both Emily and Anthony, both showing their acceptance into their charter schools of choice. However, on a sad note, the other three children all get declined, and remind us that this is what happens for so many Americans.
Waiting for “Superman” is also an extremely well done and influential documentary because, not only does it focus on the problems going on in the public school system, it also addresses solutions to solve these crucial problems. Guggenheim talks about the tracking system that allows us to see which schools are working and which are not, and specifically what works and what doesn’t in the classroom (Ripley, 1). A big focus in this film is how important a good teacher is, and with good teachers public schools can improve. It is proven that schools that are more successful are those with “great teachers, more class time and higher standards” (Ripley, 1). Another huge impact that is heading towards the solution to the failing public education system is President Barack Obama and his Education Secretary’s influence (Ripley, 1). If there is influence and help coming from the top of the system, then there is so much hope for the future. “Overnight, the White House has become the biggest benefactor in the education world, far surpassing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation” (Ripley, 1). This documentary shows how much change in being made in the United States already towards improving the education system, and that with more people’s help and contribution, public schools can be saved.
Films have such a huge influence in our society, so it is very important to make films about things going on in the world. Documentary films use in exposing things that are happening that people don’t know about is one of the best uses. So many people in society are blind to the news or don’t understand the many social problems occurring all the time. People don’t realize what happens in the world and that if they don’t know about it these problems will just continue. It is extremely important to have documentary films conveying truths and promoting change, since films are so influential. Society will listen to what is said and will watch what is shown in films and will appreciate and learn for these so much more than just a quick news article that skims the problems. Documentaries go deep into the heart of these problems, expose what is truly going on and not just what the news tells you, and show how important it is for people to be aware. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, No End in Sight, and Waiting for “Superman” all show important events and scandals and expose them to audiences everywhere. These documentaries are made for people to learn from and understand the depth of social problems. It is so important that people know what is going on in the world, since this is where we live and will continue living. Documentary films will only continue their job of exposing and promoting change, and as long as people continue to watch them, the world will continue to change and improve.
Carruthers, Susan L. “Question Time: The Iraq War Revisited.” Cineaste, Vo. 32 Issue 4 (Fall 2007): pp 12-17. Academic Search Premier. 14 April 2012.
Levin, Jane. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Screen Education, Issue 40 (2005): pp 30-35. Academic Search Premier. 13 April 2012.
Olorunda, Tolu. “Heroes and Myths: On Davis Guggenheim’s Superman.” Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies, Vol. 33 Issue 2 (Apr-June 2011): pp161-212. Academic Search Premier. 16 April 2012.
Ripley, Amanda. “A Call to Action for Public Schools.” Time, Vol. 176 Issue 12 (September 2010). Academic Search Premier. 16 April 2012.