Now that there is a documentarian in the White House, perhaps conservative documentaries can earn some respect—and a revival. Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, is, among other things, a successful conservative documentary filmmaker, a rare achievement.
Over the last decade, Bannon has directed more than a dozen documentaries. His films run the gamut from celebrating Ronald Reagan’s determination to win the Cold War to probing hot political issues including immigration. Bannon also served as executive producer for two films, which I directed and produced through the company I founded, Manifold Productions. The first told the harrowing story of the two biggest battles of the Iraq War, Fallujah and Najaf. The second explored the remarkable life of Admiral Hyman Rickover, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who became the father of the nuclear submarine.
Documentaries Are Deeply One-Sided
Given the explosion of interest in documentaries and the rise of conservative news and talk radio, you might expect that Steve and I are typical of a large and growing group of conservative documentarians. A quick reality check indicates just the opposite.
Documentaries have been the almost exclusive playground of the Left, often the far left. Every year, on TV and in movie theaters, you can see any number of films decrying global warming, attacking big agriculture, mocking gun ownership, denouncing George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (but not Barack Obama’s), etc., but rarely can you see films on the other side of any of these issues.
Long before I met Steve, I had the opportunity to give this matter much thought both as a successful documentary filmmaker for more than 35 years and a funder of documentaries. I served on the National Council of the National Endowment for Humanities and as senior vice president of Television Programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
While there might be other social and cultural forces at work, I have come to see that the institutions that foster documentaries have largely locked out anyone who is right of center. Let’s trace the process through the growth and development of new filmmaking talent.
This Is a Cultivation Problem
A budding filmmaker may well decide to major in film during his college years. He or she will have ample opportunity. Most of the over 4,000 colleges and universities in America have a film department. Students are treated to courses on environmental filmmaking, social media, gay and lesbian films, activist filmmaking, which all push the familiar politically correct agenda. Students are taught to make films that view American history and society solely through the lens of race, class, and gender. Professors in film studies tend to be even more liberal than their counterparts in other disciplines. Each year, they indoctrinate a new crop of tens of thousands of young students.
What happens to them next? The indoctrination and grooming continues. Their professors and mentors guide them through the postgraduate institutions that help them make and market their films. First, liberal foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation provide funding. Then, activist production companies and distributors such as Participant Media get their films released into theaters. Next, sympathetic broadcasters such as PBS and HBO show their films in prime time. Finally, liberal critics and industry organizations such as The New York Times and the Oscars give them praise and awards.
These institutions provide money, distribution, credentialing, and networking; every one of them shares the politically correct views sanctioned by the academy, which is not surprising given that they are staffed by university-trained professionals who live on one coast or the other. For filmmakers on the left, it is a closed loop.
I have some bad news for this documentary establishment. Trump, with Bannon’s help, campaigned against political correctness and self-dealing elites. And they won.
Even worse for them, Bannon understands this problem from the inside of the film industry. I hope he will find a way to break their politically correct stranglehold and open a path for young, talented conservative filmmakers. Documentaries provide an important way of understanding our politics, history, and culture. Viewers, and the nation, are better served by a diversity of views.