Merchants of doom?

Though a profusion of end-of-the world documentaries risks breeding apathy, directors such as Frany Armstrong say they are trying to inspire activism.

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A profusion of end-of-the-world documentaries risks breeding apathy, says Kevin Maher, but The Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong says that the time for gentle warnings has passed Leaping through the landscape of today's documentaries can be a strangely consistent and deeply unsettling experience. Start, for example, with Franny Armstrong's galvanic approach to global warming, The Age of Stupid. Within the first seconds, viewers see (admittedly fictional) depictions of a future London submerged in murky waters, Las Vegas hidden under desert sands and the Sydney Opera House - and most of the surrounding city - on fire. "Our ecological doom," it seems to be saying, "is inevitable."

Never mind. Michael Moore's new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, is bound to contain a tidy intellectual polemic or two. But no. There, too, we quickly learn how the top two per cent of American society jealously retains more wealth than the other 98 per cent combined and how the latter cash-strapped group is on the brink of revolution; chaos and a breakdown in social order (and life as we know it) are only minutes away.

Still, there's bound to be something else on offer. What about the curiously titled Vanishing of the Bees? Remarkably, yet again, this award-winning documentary from George Langworthy shows us how the planet's honeybee populations are being destroyed by the wide-scale use of systemic pesticides, and since honeybees pollinate 80 per cent of the fruits and vegetables we eat, it seems that ... yes, we are all doomed.

It's the same story with The End of the Line (no more fish left - doomed!), Food, Inc (no more non-chemically-altered food left - doomed!), and Earth Days (planet on the brink of extinction - really doomed!). Of course, there are other documentaries out this year. But they are often quirky, lower-profile gems such as the zany rock 'n' roll film Anvil! The Story of Anvil or the lovingly crafted Mike Tyson profile, Tyson. The documentaries that are making the biggest noise, snagging the distribution deals and thereby defining the movement are those concerned with our downfall. They sport a self-consciously millenarian outlook and are designed to batter the conscientious viewer into terrified submission.

The Age of Stupid's Armstrong, an avowed environmentalist, is unapologetic about this shock-factor approach. "If your kitchen is on fire you want someone to come running in shouting: 'Your kitchen's on fire! Quick! Put it out!' You don't want someone saying quietly: 'Oh, by the way, it's a little warm in your kitchen.' It's the difference between alarming and alarmist because the situation the planet is in now is alarming. All the science is accurate. In the movie, we're not even showing the worst-case scenarios. We're not exaggerating for dramatic effect."

Yet, with worst-case scenarios arriving with such head-spinning regularity from directors across the globe, the keen documentary-watcher can often vacillate somewhere between compassion fatigue and an overwhelming sense of political inertia. How, in effect, can you stop the end of the world? The Age of Stupid, for instance, is set in 2055, the year that, according to the scientists consulted for the film, the world will be officially a no-go zone for human beings if we have not altered our current rate of consumption and environmental destruction. The documentary is thus set in a lonely polar research station where a librarian, played by Pete Postlethwaite, flicks through video files from the past (our present) and examines how the old world (us) refused to act appropriately, even when facing ecological disaster. He pings between present-day stories of melting Alpine glaciers, rising Louisiana floodwaters and carcinogenic oil pollution in the Niger delta.

In all this, the destruction of the world is presented as a fait accompli. The filmmaker's passion and ire are so strident and unforgiving that the effect can often be deadening. This certainly compromises the clarion call that it clearly wants to raise. How, in other words, can we possibly do anything significant enough to save a doomed planet? "If people feel disempowered by the film then we've failed," says Armstrong, who has shown the movie around the world to public audiences and politicians in equal measure (in the UK she screened it before a team from Gordon Brown's office and, in the US, for Barack Obama's environmental advisers). "I set the documentary in the future because I feel that it's more empowering that way. Everyone watching the film grasps, within the first 25 seconds, that we're not yet in 2055. We are in a period where we still can act."

Empowerment, of course, is relative. And if The Age of Stupid was the only hysterically doom-mongering, high-profile documentary to be released this year, it might indeed send its target audience rushing to the barricades. But Moore's movie, too, is designed to spur audiences into action. The 90-minute ramshackle tour of capitalism's ills (house repossession, striking factory workers, homeless families) culminates when Moore circles Wall Street's Goldman Sachs building trailing a yellow line of crime scene tape. "Come join me" in the war against the system, he challenges the viewer.

The same is true for Vanishing of the Bees, Food, Inc, Earth Days and End of the Line, Crude (about oil) and King Corn (about monoculture) - they are all documentaries that were designed to inspire activism but ultimately threaten to neutralise each other through repetition of form and content. The leading documentaries of our day have become victims of their own success. They have transformed the world of documentaries into the filmic equivalent of London's Speakers Corner: an intellectual terrain where all opinions and all polemics are shouted - at the same time and in the same mildly hysterical way.

Documentaries, naturally, weren't always like this. For the greatest part the genre's history (from 1900 onwards) the major concern was not the manipulation of argument but the presentation of truth. As early as 1922's Nanook of the North and 1934's Man of Aran, the giant documentarian of the day, Robert J Flaherty, began to question the veracity of a format that had, until then, been concerned with straight travelogues and scientific observations (such as Gheorghe Marinescu's 1901 medical film Illness of the Muscles).

Flaherty introduced the storytelling skills of a director into his supposedly unmediated observations. In Nanook of the North, which focused on the Inuit peoples in Quebec's Hudson Bay, Flaherty famously forced his subjects to abandon modern weaponry (they hunted with guns) for ancient tools for the sake of "authenticity". Similarly, for Man of Aran, he faked an entire lost-at-sea section and assembled a cast of "families" based on their photogenic, weather-beaten looks rather than genuine bloodlines.

From Flaherty onwards, the ideological debate surrounding the documentary format was thus a question of truth: how honest is this film being and how much is the audience being manipulated by the images on screen? The Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, working at the same time as Flaherty, made great claims for the genre, announcing that it could reveal the truth of life (in his case, an idyllic communist Russia) more accurately than life itself. This idea eventually bled into the propaganda movies of the Second World War - such as Frank Capra's Why We Fight (1942) and Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) - and highlighted the medium's ability to manipulate the messages underneath the image.

Even after the war and through the 1960s and 1970s, the question of honesty continued to define the documentary world. The American documentarian Frederick Wiseman's films, for example, were held as champions of the "direct cinema" movement, which aimed for unmediated observations of reality. In movies such as High School (1968) and Hospital (1970), he simply filmed the human life that occurred therein. Similarly, the French filmmaker Jean Rouch's famous 1960 movie Chronicle of a Summer is nothing less than a collection of French citizens discussing social and political problems in front of the camera while, before and after the discussions, the director meditates on the possibility of finding the truth within.

Somewhere along the line, mostly in the 1990s, this all changed. Thanks to a perfect storm of social, cultural, political, commercial and technological factors, documentaries were upended. Cameras became affordable and easy to use, introducing a new generation of filmmakers to the format. Reality TV proved that everyone had a story to tell. The internet proved that everyone had an opinion to communicate. Increasingly, global politics proved that voters felt disenfranchised.

Finally, filmmakers such as Moore and Nick Broomfield (and their TV counterparts around the globe) proved that there was big money to be made from a new type of investigative documentary where the cult of personality and fiery polemics dominated. Titles such as Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, Kurt & Courtney and Super Size Me became the brand leaders. Bold claims, corporate and governmental conspiracy theories and portents of doom were the orders of the day. Everyone else was merely playing catch-up.

It didn't take long, however, for the environmental movement to see opportunities in the new format. Al Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth set the standard, collating all the then available evidence of global warming into one powerful sucker-punch that left viewers shaken, and transformed the movie into a box-office smash. Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour soon followed, and we now face an unprecedented glut of documentaries that speak, regardless of specific subject matter, in the same doom-laden tones.

Armstrong, typically, is not bothered by this perceived crush of material. "It's a strange idea to think that just because one film, An Inconvenient Truth, was made about climate change, then that's it," she says. "It's like saying that all war films are irrelevant because Coppola made Apocalypse Now. In fact, climate change is a bigger subject than war. It is the biggest subject around. So we need hundreds of films about it, and from all different angles."

Ironically, it seems that Armstrong's wish is becoming a reality. But in the process there is a very real danger that familiarity is breeding apathy: put climate change in one blockbusting documentary and the world worries; put global warming into every documentary and global warming is normalised. The form, in short, is losing its sting. The documentary is becoming a doom-laden rant. And, like the variegated species on the planet, it purports to defend, it needs to evolve to survive. And fast.