After a recent screening of my new film Why We Fight, I was
asked why I chose to go into film. I answered that “filmmaking
was probably the only thing that kept me from a life of crime.” People
laughed, but I was partly serious.
We’ve all heard artists asked why they
do what they do. All too often the answers seem overly philosophical.
There’s a tendency to ignore the personal factors that drive
a person to choose a creative life’s work. In my case, there
are surely personal factors that drove me to political filmmaking—wanting
to prove something to my parents, being the youngest and never getting
a chance to talk, growing up financially secure and feeling guilty
for the struggles of others. Who knows?
I do know that I came to political
filmmaking as a person more moved by people than by film. I like movies,
but I’m not really a film “buff.” I’m best
described as an idealist pained by human conditions that stem from
and abuse, and who wants to “do something” to fix the problem.
lot of people feel this way, but the major problems of today seem far
beyond our reach. The evidence is overwhelming. We now face significant
threats in health, education, the economy, global conflict and, as
we work our way through the alphabet of tropical storm names, the environment.
leaders of both parties appear either too unwitting or unwilling to
take steps toward real change. Across the globe, people are concerned
by the path America is taking, not just during these years of a radical
administration in Washington, but looking back to previous administrations.
People see America’s ideals of democracy and republicanism giving
way to the more cutthroat aspirations of an empire. Here at home, corporatism
has been unleashed to trample the vital checks and balances of our
system. Our form of government of, by, and for the people seems instead
to have become a plaything for the powerful—what Ambrose Bierce
called “the conduct of public office for private gain.”
Why We Fight looks at what President Eisenhower called “the
military-industrial complex”—an unholy alliance between
the defense sector, the military, and those in government that Eisenhower
feared could threaten the structure of our society. Today, the United
States annually spends nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars on
defense—more than on all other discretionary parts of the federal
budget combined. And most people barely know about it, let alone have
any say in it.
warning was limited to the defense sector, but it can really be applied
to the entire American corporate-political state. With the enormous
costs involved in campaign finance and the need for members of Congress
to bring jobs to their districts, the most important constituents for
any politician are not you and me, but those whose companies write
big checks and create jobs. And it doesn’t matter what party
is in power. One quick look at the past century’s wars shows
Republicans don’t own the copyright on making war or serving
special interests. Democrats and Republicans alike face obscene campaign
costs and constituents who want results. This is where American industries
gain “unwarranted influence.” The problem is systemic.
And those in power are unlikely to fix it since, more often than not,
are part of it.
Things look pretty dark. And in the darkness it’s
easy to get disillusioned and frustrated. It can make you want to holler.
But also in the dark lies the prospect for change. I don’t mean “change” in
some syrupy, inspirational-video kind of way. I mean what history has
proven. Dark ages have historically preceded periods of enlightenment
and progress. And while it’s dark, it’s hard to imagine
it may ever get light again. But it is during dark times that people
seek change. And sooner or later, good or bad, it comes—just
never when you expect it. Chou En Lai, Foreign Minister under Mao’s
China, was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution. “Too
soon to tell,” he replied.
The phases of history are long and
it can be hard to tell what part of the curve you’re on. The
names and places change, but the strong have always exploited the weak.
Tyranny, feudalism and global slavery—facts of life for centuries—did
nonetheless give way to some latter day advances in democracy and human
rights. In the 1960s, America faced its racist and sexist legacies.
In the 1980s, homosexuality was brought out of the closet and accepted
as a way of life for millions of Americans. So no matter what we now
face, we are not the first.
Still, change never comes from above. It
only comes when people demand it in a voice those in power cannot ignore.
When a system is unjust, a just person must express dissent. However,
when the system persecutes dissent (“you are either with us or
against us”), that system makes peaceful dissent impossible.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “when government makes
peaceful revolution impossible, it makes violent revolution inevitable.”
where keeping me from a life of crime comes in. Making documentaries
is a way for me to seek nonviolent change by shedding light on information
that can empower those around me. If I didn’t have the movies,
I honestly don’t know what I would do. But so long as I have
them, I’m going to keep making my voice heard and add it to what
I sense is a growing chorus of others seeking change. I hope you like
Why We Fight, and most of all, if you find something in it
that makes you want to holler, go ahead and holler.