Do Filmmakers Ever Change Their Mind About Their Own Documentary?

Pandora's Promise

Electric wires in a slum in Brazil in a scene from PANDORA’S PROMISE. Photo credit: Robert Stone. © 2013 – CNN Films

Over the weekend, I read Michael Moore‘s tweets in response to the UCSB killings and was surprised that the filmmaker came across so anti-gun above anything else. “For you who are scared of a guy breaking in to hurt you,” he wrote in one of the last from Saturday night, abbreviating most of the words, “trust me, you aren’t going to fire a gun half asleep at 3am and hit your target. Get a dog.” It seemed like a simplification of the issue he explores in his Oscar-winning doc Bowling for Columbine, if not a change of mind.

My impression of the conclusion of that film is that guns aren’t the problem, that it’s bigger and more complicated than that. He’s also written as much since the release of the doc. I don’t think he’s meaning to be more reductive now than he was back in 2002, but Twitter can do that. It’s a difficult medium for communicating complete ideas on tough issues. I wonder why some documentarians bother with it, particularly on matters they’ve already made films about.

Of course, Moore is perfectly free to express himself in the moment, and he’s free to change his mind on matters he’s made films about. A post on his site would be the best place to make a statement like that, or maybe he could make another movie. But this isn’t what he’s done at this point. On his Facebook page, he posted an initial statement in response to Friday’s Isla Vista massacre, noting that “everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago,” meaning in Bowling for Columbine.

So, that is not an instance of a filmmaker actually going against his own position taken in a film. But my immediate response to his response was to wonder if that’s ever happened at all. Surely there must be documentarians whose take on an issue has altered somewhat since making a film about that issue. Nobody makes films as dead ends, as the last word, even if they wish to. But we don’t ever hear about, say, Davis Guggenheim disavowing The Inconvenient Truth because he no longer believes in global warming, to give a fictional example that would make waves.

One instance that’s close but no cigar is Robert Stone‘s one-eighty on nuclear energy, about which he made a documentary, Pandora’s Promise. It’s not quite the opposite of his Oscar-nominated classic from 1988, Radio Bikini, which is all about nuclear weapons. He’s still anti-nukes as bombs, just pro-nukes as power. But what if Pandora’s Promise had been a wiping of the slate on that film? Would we still want to consider it a doc worth seeing? Alas, that’s a question related to why issue films in general have a hard time becoming classic films.

I thought an easy way to find films that were disowned by documentarians would be the IMDb listing for “Alan Smithee,” that name that gets stamped on a film when the director takes his or her name off it. There are a few nonfiction films with that credit, but nothing too notable. There’s Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes, though its true director is just as often given credit in reviews and listings. And an episode of Frontline has an Alan Smithee writing credit, but it’s an episode about Hollywood so that might just be a neat joke. I guess it’s not often you hear about a documentary director walking away from a film, even with films where the producers are clearly the ones in control.

It is often, however, that you hear about a documentary subject coming out against the film they’re in. It’s also common that an issue film is answered by another film in response, sometimes in an attempt to debunk that first film (Moore has seen it happen with his films a couple times). Journalists often offer apologies. Academics tend to write beyond and sometimes against their earlier texts. A lot of artists hate all their older works. Plenty of fiction film directors are known to have hated certain movies they made. So why don’t documentary directors ever turn around and distance themselves from their own films?

Well, there is Leni Riefenstahl, who pretty much had to disavow Triumph of the Will in order to convince us all that she wasn’t a Nazi. But I’m not certain she’s ever flat out said she regrets making that or any other films for Hitler, just that she regrets having met Hitler. That’s also a special circumstance where the ideals represented in the film are ideals that have not been okay to align with since the end of World War II. There aren’t any other political opinions or positions that compare.

I believe there has to be at least one filmmaker out there who hates an earlier film of his or hers, for whatever reason. Hopefully in writing this discussion I’ll hear from that single person or numerous filmmakers who aren’t afraid to admit to being ashamed of or sorry for one of his or her docs.

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