When examining documentary, there are at least two obvious arguments that can be made about the purpose of this type of filmmaking: the first is that, at its heart, it is designed to inform, and the second is that it is (very often) designed to persuade. These seemingly inherent features of documentary go as far back as the earliest films of the genre, as the first actualities attempted to portray real life and convey certain specific meanings and perceptions about that life. Over time, however, the ability of documentary film to persuade has seemingly come to the forefront, even as many documentary filmmakers continue to claim as their main goal the desire to inform. This structuring has become particularly evident in more recent films, as evident in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. Review after review of the film points out the ways in which the narrative attempts to persuade and convince viewers of Moore’s own political viewpoint all through the guise of supposedly wanting to “inform.” Ultimately, though, it is the persuasive nature of Moore’s text that obviously dominates. On the other hand, the reverse seems to be true for the 2004 documentary, Confronting Iraq. This film, a clear response to Moore’s work, attempts to inform first and persuade second, and it does so particularly through its use of narration, music, and sound. Though the film does have an identifiable persuasive agenda, its more “educational-esque” structuring and the conscious narrative and musical choices create a film that treks across a seemingly more informative (and, perhaps, a more balanced) landscape that is the recent war in Iraq.
The creators of Confronting Iraq put forth the film as a text structured to inform first and persuade second.On the film’s companion website (http://www.confrontingiraq.net), they argue that the goal of the film is “to attempt to set the record straight and to examine some of the big issues related to this war [the recent War in Iraq]” (“About…”).
This assertion is then followed by a number of questions and “complex issues” that the film attempts to answer and “examine” (“About…”). This textual commentary presenting the intentions of the filmmakers is important to note because it indicates a desire to inform rather than persuade. More importantly, however, is the fact that the film itself carries out these goals (unlike other documentaries that assert similar “informative” positions but actually spend more time persuading than informing). The film’s narrative structure is exploratory, traveling over past and present events that led up to the war including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the activities of the Clinton administration, and the September 11th terrorist attacks. The historical coverage thus gives the film a sort of “travel narrative” feel—a feel heightened through the use of a repetitive beat musical score and a voiceover narrator with a French accent over the images (and sounds) of the events discussed. These particular sound devices help make the tone of the film remain serious and professional and give it an educational quality that reduces its more persuasive aspects and heightens the informative feel.
The use of a score with a repetitive beat helps establish the film’s travel narrative film. It keeps the pace of the film moving forward as it works through the events that led to the recent war in Iraq. In one scene, in particular, the beats even accompany footage that seems to be shot from a car, as a line of trees pass by in succession, and it is this feeling that the music conveys in the film as a whole—that the documentary is taking one on an informative journey. What one will see along the way will be the answers to questions like “Did the U.S. really act unilaterally?” (“About…”) or what type of experiences do/did American soldiers have during the fighting in Iraq, and as the film progresses, the rhythmic score appropriately changes tempo to remain focused on the information being presented.
The choice of narrator also helps present Confronting Iraq as a film created first and foremost to inform. The youthful yet poised female narrator, whose voiceover chronicles the events that led up to and through the war in Iraq, provides the film with a voice full of steady confidence. Throughout the film her tone remains strong and balanced, reminiscent of the types of narration used in anthropological documentaries that feature foreign (i.e. “primitive”) cultures. Such a comparison is appropriate for it again highlights the “informative” feeling of the narration, as opposed to the narration in documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 which sound more ironic and inflammatory in order to persuade. Of perhaps more importance, though, is the fact that the narrator in Confronting Iraq has a French accent. Since this documentary is an American film made about American involvement in Iraq for (primarily) American audiences, this choice at first may seem striking (and it is, upon a first viewing), it ultimately makes good (rhetorical) sense. As the film’s editor, Don White, notes, the choice of a French narrator added a “European flavor” that was “slightly subversive” because of the perception of the French people during the conflict in Iraq (phone interview). This “subversive” choice works particularly well in making the film seem informative because it creates an implication that the film has foreign creators and investigators. Such an implication is important because it creates a sense that someone outside of American politics (and thus more “objective”) is delivering the messages of the film. It is almost “de Toqueville-esque,” as if a foreign observer is commenting on American involvement and relating the “truth” as perceived from an external perspective. Although this choice may seem deceptive, it does allow for a different reception of the information provided within the film than would an overtly “American” voiceover, and that difference is key for the film’s ability to be more informative than persuasive.
In the end, Confronting Iraq is a documentary that truly attempts to document events and issues related to the situation in Iraq. Although it clearly contains a particular agenda, its structuring is purposefully not set up to persuade and argue for that agenda. At its heart is instead a desire to provide factual information and answers to questions raised about American involvement concerning Iraq. Using narrative structures including rhythmic music and a French-accented voiceover, the film works hard—much harder than most other documentaries—to convey information and not bias. Though it may not be completely successful in the task (though, one might wonder if any film ever could), Confronting Iraq nevertheless strives—particularly through sound—to sound fair, which may just be more than anyone could ask for when searching for an “objective” documentary.
The repetitive beat music used within Confronting Iraq, though drum-like, is not, according to editor Don Wilson, actual drums but is instead synthetic. He notes how the film was scored very quickly, “over a few days,” and that much of the scoring came from a collection entitled “Cinematic Ambiance” (phone interview)
“About Confronting Iraq.” 2004. Confronting Iraq Website. 17 Feb. 2004
Wilson, Don. Phone interview. 3 Feb. 2004.
James R. Knecht
Oklahoma State University