Twisting Docus For Fun & Profit?

By Robert Marich
   Oct. 27, 2008 – Feature-length documentary Religulous hit a hefty-for-the-genre $10.6 million in domestic box office, but Bruce Weinstein -- who is a PhD, ethics expert/author and CNN contributor -- is not impressed. The religion-knocking film from comedian Bill Maher and distributor Lionsgate is part of the new movement in documentaries that put entertainment values above meaningful analysis.
            In a column for Business Week, Weinstein says Maher’s “real goal is to make fun of just about everyone he interviews (using) the formal elements of filmmaking, especially editing and music… Artists are not exempt from the ethical obligation to treat others with respect, and one of the most important ways we show respect for people is by telling the truth. What makes Religulous so troubling both from an artistic and an ethical perspective is that Maher shows almost no regard either for the truth or for the integrity of other human beings.”
   Maher told the Los Angeles Times that interview subjects in his film were misled about the true intentions of Religulous, which they were told would be titled A Spiritual Journey. The movie is populated with odd ball persons of faith, which allows Maher to exaggerate the subject.
   In this decade, a new wave of documentarians has moved into the genre that include Maher. They build a case for their political or social causes – Maher is an avowed agnostic – and emphasize entertainment over reality.  
   At $10.6 million in domestic box office, Religulous is the top-grossing documentary of 2008 so far (the genre is having another bad year in general except for Rocky Mountain Pictures-distributed Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed at $7.7 million). Religulous is ninth on the all time docu list.
   The top-grossing documentary of all time at $119.9 million is Fahrenheit 9/11, though its box office success is unmatched, according to Lest one thinks edgy films dominate this class, the second-ranked documentary is humorous Antarctic wildlife docu March of the Penguins that grossed $77.4 million.
  No other documentaries have grossed $25 million domestically on the all time list, but these films can
still be highly profitable under that box office level. Religulous cost just $2.5 million to make, which far below the tens of millions of dollars for scripted studio films.
   Supporters of new wave docus that highlight entertainment argue they are an admirable breath of fresh air that is expanding the audience for the genre.
   But ethics expert Weinstein begs to disagree. “It may be irrational to place one’s faith in the unknowable” when the subject is religious belief, writes Weinstein in his Business Week column. “But it’s downright unethical to use a documentary to make fun of people and believe you’ve spoken the truth.”

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