Finding a new choir

When television was first introduced into our culture, it was sold with the idea that it could be used both for mass education, giving college-level ideas to anyone with a television set, and for the dissemination of information, one of the basic tenets of democracy. Television would bring us all of this, and more.

The "more" was the problem, it seems. Flip through thousands of channels today and you will find mindless entertainment, formulaic dramas, sex, violence, action and explosions galore. A viewer must actively search for anything resembling education or the vital information needed to make informed votes.

Enter the documentary, a feature-length dissertation on issues important to the electorate: war, famine, corruption and hegemony. These are issues we must examine if we are to vote intelligently, issues that are, unfortunately, difficult to digest.

I went to see a documentary last week on genetically modified organisms in our food supply. "The Future of Food" contained many facts I was already aware of, since I have been eating GMO-free for three years. It enlightened me to even more: the health complications of rats eating GMOs, for example, and the corruption of the Monsanto Company and its overwhelming influence on the FDA.

The problem with this documentary is that I am not the person who needs to see it. I already understand the issue, and would vote on it as an informed citizen.

The people who really need to see this documentary are the masses who don’t go out of their way to watch an independent documentary in a small indie theater; people who watch cable and "Sex and the City" and shop at Safeway – they are the ones who need to be educated. A depressing documentary about how bad the situation is only preaches to the choir, because we are the only masochists who go out of our way to find out how bad its gotten.

But a new advance in the documentary as a form has emerged through the blend of information and entertainment. While "The Future of Food" will never be seen by more than 1% of McDonald’s customers, "Super Size Me" has been seen by many more.

This documentary follows Morgan Spurlock, a funny, witty filmmaker in New York, while he puts himself on a McDonald’s-only diet for thirty days. He hires three doctors to monitor the changes in his body. We watch how, day-by-day, his life deteriorates. He intersperses his downfall with facts about obesity in the United States and some of our less-healthy customs. But the documentary is not only watchable, but enjoyable, because of Spurlock himself.

From deadpan humor to outright absurdity, he takes the audience by the hand and says, "This is going to be a little scary, what you’ll see here. So I’m just going to keep making jokes so that you’ll enjoy it. Watch me chug this shake." The end result is a film that is enjoyable and informing at the same time. This is the direction documentaries need to go.

Michael Moore, with his Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine," pioneered this recent foray into the entertaining documentary. He made an examination of our gun-happy culture more than a depressing shame on ourselves.

His trip to the bank to get a free rifle for opening a checking account, and delivering victims of the Columbine shooting to K-Mart’s corporate headquarters to return the bullets still embedded in their bodies, were breaks into the absurdly funny that made the documentary more than information; it was entertainment.

That’s the way to reach the Tivo-addicted segment of our culture, who get their political views solely from the dittoheads on Fox News. Right now education is not mandatory before voting. People can inform themselves on each side of the issue, or not, and their vote still counts the same.

I would love to see a system where every citizen was required to watch a documentary on each side of an issue, and participate in a discussion afterwards, before they were allowed to vote. But this is the Land of the Free, and the dittoheads have as much a right to vote as everyone else.

What we need to do is slip them some issue education in a form they can swallow: entertainment. This is the direction documentaries must continue going, for all our sakes.