Documentary films put politics on the agenda

The Hunting of the President was shown at Locarno (Locarno film festival)

An early work by cult director, Michael Moore, and a documentary on the former United States president, Bill Clinton, are among the politically slanted films that have been shown at Locarno this year.

This content was published on August 14, 2004 - 11:53

Experts say the rise of the political documentary is a sign that the public wants to be both informed and entertained.

Political documentaries are currently riding high at the cinema following the phenomenal success of Moore’s latest work “Fahrenheit 9/11”, which fiercely criticises the US decision to invade Iraq.

Apart from winning the Cannes Film festival in May, the controversial film has also grossed more than $100 million (SFr126 million) at the US box office – a record amount for any documentary.

Marcy Goldberg from Zurich University’s department of film studies says that Michael Moore in particular has helped to remind everybody that audiences are interested in politics.

“Especially today with the kind of events that are going on in the world, people would like to understand what’s happening and why,” Goldberg told swissinfo.

“These kind of documentaries satisfy that need, because they are giving people the information and giving it to them in an accessible, fascinating and entertaining way,” she added.

Locarno leads the way

An early work by Moore was featured in this year’s retrospective at the Locarno film festival, which is on the subject of journalism.

It showed his debut work from 1989, “Roger and Me”, which examines the effects of the closing of General Motors on his home town of Flint, Michigan, in the US.

Another topical documentary in the retrospective was “The Hunting of the President”, which details a decade-long conspiracy to drive former president Clinton from office.

It was made by Harry Thomason, a close friend of Clinton, and is based on the bestseller of the same name by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason. It has just been released in the US and had its European premiere at Locarno.


Speaking just before the film was broadcast on the Piazza Grande on Friday evening, producer Keith Vezensky said he hoped that “The Hunting of the President” was the first of many “politainment” films to come.

But the film, which used graphics and old film clips interspersed with archive footage and interviews – but not with Clinton himself – had a mixed reception among the audience.

Some found it had a strong message, but others were less enthusiastic.

“It was interesting, but if you didn’t know all the story then it was a bit confusing and very one-sided,” said one spectator from Germany.


Some critics of political documentaries have accused the genre of sometimes being unbalanced.

Goldberg says it is inevitable that choices are made editing documentaries. But she says most people are smart enough to tell when something has been skewed.

Jean-Stéphane Bron, director of last year’s smash-hit Swiss documentary film, “Mais im Bundeshuus”, about a group of parliamentarians working on a genetics law, says that people are well aware that political documentaries are not current affairs.

“People know that they are not going to have the truth in the cinema, but a point of view from someone with a strong idea of how he or she wants to tell them a story,” Bron told swissinfo.


Both Goldberg and Bron agree that Switzerland is a particularly receptive country to documentaries.

Goldberg, who is researching the subject, says Switzerland would be a good example to other countries in terms of giving access to documentaries.

And she hopes that the present popularity of documentaries is here to stay, as they have always been an essential part of film.

“Documentary has been there since cinema started. It’s a fundamental part of the medium - the ability to document what’s out there around us in the world and to preserve it for the future,” she said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Locarno

In brief

“The Hunting of the President” is directed by Harry Thomason, a friend of Bill Clinton’s, and Nickolas Parry.

It is narrated by Morgan Freeman and uses previously unreleased material and interviews from both camps.

The film focuses on the campaign against Clinton from his days as governor of Arkansas to his impeachment trial as President.

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