By Tracy Sorensen
"You hope you can have a few screenings of your film, and maybe get it on TV somewhere", says Canadian film maker Mark Achbar. "But for a feature-length documentary on what for many people is an obscure American intellectual to take off in the way that it has ... you feel maybe you haven't pushed the envelope far enough."
Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's Manufacturing Consent is an examination of thought control in democratic societies ("propaganda is to democracies what violence is to totalitarian societies") based on the life and work of radical US scholar Noam Chomsky. Among others, it won the top prize at the prestigious Nyon, Switzerland, documentary film festival on October 19.
At the Sydney Film Festival in June, where the first test print was shown, the audience gave it the highest "Loved It" rating of the 47 documentaries screened. In the weeks since its commercial release, the film has shown to capacity audiences and warm reviews in Canada and Australia.
But what does it mean not to push the envelope far enough?
"I don't know. Maybe we've gone mainstream and we didn't notice it", Achbar told Green Left in Sydney on October 21. "But I don't think we sugar-coated it. It's straight up with libertarian socialist views, straight discussions of anarchist thought. And those are not minor components of the film. And people applaud. That's so encouraging."
If Achbar's concern about success in the mainstream media he spent five years trying to deconstruct seems a bit unnecessary — few would find Manufacturing Consent a softly spoken piece of work — it's worth keeping in mind one of his earlier film projects. The antiwar documentary The Journey, on which Achbar and Wintonick collaborated with director Peter Watkins, is a massive 14
"And 23 people saw it! No, I exaggerate. A lot of people saw it, but it was an extremely limited audience. We wanted a substantial audience for Manufacturing Consent. The Journey was a valid exercise in style, it was a rebellion against mainstream forms. For Manufacturing Consent we chose to try to subvert those mainstream forms by using coded mainstream techniques."
Relative brevity was one of those codes (although Manufacturing Consent is still a long film); others include a range of techniques at least subliminally familiar to anyone who has ever watched voice-over news or a rock video clip.
One simple, memorable visual gag: in a discussion of what came to be known as the Faurisson Affair, in which Chomsky horrified some defending the freedom of speech (while opposing the arguments) of a French academic taken to court for holding that the holocaust never happened, the camera zooms in on a little storm taking place in a teacup.
"It's all as manipulated as hell", says Achbar. "But the film tries to be self-referential, not ad nauseam, but enough so you don't forget completely that you are watching a film."
The film is a collage of visual gags spliced together with animation, snippets of television and film footage from around the world, along with original material shot by the film makers. They decided to do it that way, said Achbar, after careful thought about the most effective way to present Chomsky's ideas.
At first, the film makers considered a "simple, elegant" form in the style of Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, in which people are "just talking".
"And because of the rhythm of the cutting, the close-ups, the wide shots, the sound effects and black-outs every now and then, My Dinner With Andre sustains interest.
"But to get the scope we wanted in this film, the breadth as well as the depth where we needed it, with a clear theoretical line down the centre, the form became snippets from all over the place, in order to get the stuff that we needed to sew it all together."
This form — "kind of post-modern neo-verité pastiche collage call it what you like" — also allowed the use of some pretty irresistible footage, such as the 1969 television show in which William F. Buckley Jr's finger twitches impatiently near the button he presses to signal the next commercial break as Chomsky tries to finish making a point.
The collage form also allowed the directors to move the focus somewhat away from Chomsky in order to explore in detail one specific example of media manipulation — in this case coverage of Indonesian atrocities in East Timor.
Was there a danger that the endless stream of images might distract the viewer from the point being made?
"There always is [that danger]", said Achbar. "But I think people are so accustomed, these days, especially with music videos and with that kind of audio-visual language system, to sort of listening with one half of the brain and watching with the other half. And I think people are able to do both simultaneously.
"With music videos, the continuity is in the song line, but the visuals can be shot in 25 different locations, in a dog's breakfast of visual styles. And people accept it without problems. It's the song that's important. I think it's the same with Noam, the thought line is like the song line, and you can hear it." Achbar was active in the peace movement in the late '70s and early '80s. "I've always been involved in social issues. I've always tried to make useful films with a political agenda. I see myself as an educator, a propagandist for libertarian socialist ideas. Making films is one way to do that."
Manufacturing Consent is showing at the Valhalla, Sydney, and other cinemas around Australia. The Journey, broken up into manageable segments, is available for loan from the National Film Library, Canberra.