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American Zeitgeist: war through a wide-angled lens

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

It is a good time to make a documentary. Whatever you think of Michael Moore he has led a revival of the genre. Be it for pure entertainment value or as a tool for political engagement, the documentary is back.

It is an even better time to make a film about the "war on terror". Almost five years after 9/11 the American people seem ready to re-examine their national trauma. Oliver Stone’s forthcoming World Trade Center, and Paul Greengrass's United 93 reconstruct specific experiences of the terrorist attacks. They signal a broader movement towards a more reflective and issue-led style of filmmaking – witness the recent nominations and winners at this year's Oscars and Cannes festival. There is a renewed desire to understand a world growing more complicated, violent and divided. As Greengrass asserts on his website, United 93 was made in "the belief that by examining this single event something much larger can be found – the shape of our world today."

For more information on American Zeitgeist and to watch a trailer of the film, click here

In such a climate Robert McGann's new documentary should do very well. American Zeitgeist: crisis and conscience in an age of terror seeks to capture the spirit of the times by mapping out the nation's political and ideological terrain. However, rather than extrapolating meaning from a single event, the film seeks to "assemble a coherent bigger picture", a wider historical perspective in which to examine what America is, what it does and what it represents.

We are led from the Afghan-Soviet war in 1979 towards 9/11 and then beyond, to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Avenue E Productions, the film's distributors, promise "film experiences with a brain", and American Zeitgeist doesn't disappoint. McGann has gathered forty or more leading brains –academics, journalists and policy makers – to guide us through the corridors of history. Interspersed with archive footage, newsreels, presidential speeches and performance poetry, events are narrated directly to camera with views from across the political spectrum.

What’s interesting about McGann’s film is how he wriggles free of any restrictive vocabulary and political agenda. The aim is to awaken the consciousness – and conscience – of the audience by situating events within a wider historical framework. Rather than play the blame–game, the film pushes important questions and reaches beyond the limits of any single analytical perspective.

American Zeitgeist is a documentary in the traditional sense: a film creating a record or document of history and viewpoints. It is a demanding and brave undertaking, and one that resists the recent trend of the film as political act, a specific intervention into world politics. (Robert Greenwald’s new film, Iraq for Sale: the war profiteers, for example, has already set out its political aim: for progressives to take back the senate and the house in November’s congressional elections.) There are none of Michael Moore’s trademark "shock and awe" tactics, no directorial entrapment of interviewees, conspiracy theories or exposé footage.

More film on openDemocracy :

Robert Cawsto, "Is everything illuminated? The curse of 'logophilia'" (December, 2005)

Stephen Howe, " Munich: Spielberg’s failure " (January 2006)

Neal Acsherson, " Good Night, and Good Luck " (February, 2006)

Jane Kinninmont, " "Syriana"
(March 2006)

Preti Taneja, " The dark heart of history: two South Asian films " (April 2006)

Robert Cawston, "Latin America: Filming the past, framing the future" (April 2006)

Duncan Woodside, " Shooting Dogs: Rwanda's genocide through European eyes " (April 2006)

Jane Kinninmont, " Paradise Now "
(April 2006)

Conn Corrigan, " Wal-mart’s bargaining power: an interview with Robert Greenwald " (May 2006)

Maryam Maruf, " Offside rules: an interview with Jafar Panahi "
(June 2006)

9/11 itself is presented as a "fracture point" for America, the moment when the nation ended a golden decade and a "long vacation from history". The scene occupies a still, central point in the film, an axis around which its two halves revolve. McGann steers a careful line between pathos and cliché portraying the event through a series of still photographs overlaid with a moving track (entitled "9/11") by the Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo.

Immediately after this scene we are shown the video message 0f a suicide bomber. McGann runs the scene over and over until we refocus on the words ("We have reached our breaking point. So listen to us America. Prepare your coffins and dig your graves for death is approaching…"). We are forced to consider their meaning, source and place within the film’s historical narrative. The words of the president ring in our ears: "Why do they hate us?" The extended footage of Bush’s presidential address to the nation provokes a similar semantic examination and appears spookily parallel to the al–Qaida video. These are controversial juxtapositions but they typify the director's subtle orchestration.

American Zeitgeist deals with the complexity of foreign relations and worldwide events. It is not as simple as a plane suddenly hitting a building. In place of what the director has termed the "splintered lens of the war on terrorism" we are given a kaleidoscope of disparate viewpoints. Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens represent the extremes of this spectrum and are often placed together in sharp contrast. The other voices we hear move between these points. McGann calls it the "battle for the narrative". He wants his audience to be caught in the "crossfire of opinion" and the collision of argument, to not know which voice is dominant but instead to listen, to question, and to think about what we are being shown.

In the absence of a single authorial voice one is at first easily drawn towards the speakers at either end of the political spectrum, those with the catchiest soundbites, solutions and explanations ("it’s all about the oil", "we are confronting the force of evil"). But as the film progresses one feels more distanced from the extremes – indeed Hitchens eventually bares his teeth in a speech urging us to fight a vicious and primitive enemy, the "riff raff" of the world. The only disappointment is a tendency to rely on mainly white (and male) American academics and almost no Middle Eastern or Islamic voices. Could this be reinforcing the same "us" versus "them" ideological divide that the film itself exposes?

Despite this reservation, American Zeitgeist is an important film about America and for America, one that counters the country’s partisan, bi-fractural politics and media. With its range of viewpoints and wide-angled lens, the investigative and educational elements of the film triumph over the ideological and polemical. The question asked at the start – "How are we doing? Do we even know?" – is answered by McGann's long view of history. As the credits roll we are closer to knowing where we stand and why.

At its end the film points towards a personal engagement and participation in the political world. "Why aren’t people more angry?" asks one commentator. American Zeitgeist is perhaps less entertaining than recent high profile documentaries, but in the long run of history it may well prove more valuable. This is not a film that will shock you into action, rather it will lead you to think and to question.


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