US and dissident documentaries

Iraq for Sale, the latest documentary from Robert Greenwald, tells a depressingly familiar tale of corporate corruption and war-profiteering in Iraq. Focusing on companies like Halliburton, CACI International and Blackwater Security Consulting, it recites a litany of rapacity and exploitation that ought to have American citizens swarming Congress, demanding heads on pikes.

It’s all here: Halliburton charging $45 for a six-pack of sodas; undertrained and poorly safeguarded mercenaries earning megabuck salaries that dwarf the pittances awarded to regular troops; gigantic corporate profit margins netted by shafting the recipient at both ends of the process (lousy and dangerous services for mindbendingly exorbitant fees); and an unsupervised, no-bid, payment-guaranteed contracting system that utterly contradicts any defensible notion of free-market capitalism.

Like the bibliophobic Ronald Reagan, these days we apparently can’t understand anything until we see it on TV. Greenwald has answered that need for us, and Iraq for Sale proves two things: first, that the gung-ho, warmongering capitalism of Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder is alive and well in the war zone; and second, that it is easier for the chairmen of Blackwell and Exxon/Mobil to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a serious and necessary dissident documentary to be seen by the broad American public.

Greenwald has earned praise for establishing an alternative distribution system for his movies, which have so far covered the entire spectrum of what is wrong with 21st-century America, including Fox News, Wal-Mart, the 2000 election, Enron, and the Tom DeLay-corrupted House of Representatives. Although most of his films achieve a nominal basic release, Greenwald also pioneered “watch-and-discuss” parties that allow citizens to download the film for free and discuss it in large groups in their homes.

Well, fat chance of seeing his work on US television. The world of canned news is a total shut-out for anything to the left of John McCain. The best that most left-liberal documentaries can hope for (if not made by Michael Moore) is a limited release and a showing on cable. Take James Longley’s remarkable documentary about life in Iraq since April 2003, Iraq in Fragments. It won awards at Sundance but has no US distributor. Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo had its poster censored by the MPAA and ran for about a week. Winterbottom himself was treated like a pariah on US cable news shows, with mendacious Pentagon spokesmen trotted out to defame his movie - and not face-to-face. Good luck seeing The Power of Nightmares in the United States, the one country that most needs to see it.

This is all very different from the Vietnam/Watergate era, when the US media had full access to the battle zone, when Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News could report on near-revolutionary dissidence within the United States military, without being accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and when journalists relentlessly asked the necessary questions that finally felled Richard Nixon.

The rise of a bought-and-paid-for news media means that the notion of objectively truth is now suspect, and that facts themselves are derided as inherently leftwing and unpatriotic. — The Guardian