To Tell the Truth (Icarus Films Home Video, NR)

Documentaries have been around as long as movies have been made, but they’re seldom the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about the movies.

That’s changing somewhat today, with the widespread success of films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. Still, there’s a long history of documentary filmmaking that is largely invisible to many filmgoers, and the two films included in the DVD release To Tell the Truth are one attempt to remedy that state of affairs. Both were originally produced for television (they are listed as episodes 2 and 3 of a series, but the IMDB has no mention of an episode 1) andrun just under an hour each.

Working For Change: Documenting Hard Times (1929-1941), directed by Calvin Skaggs and narrated by Alec Baldwin, looks at the portrayal of Depression-era American in two very different types of films: newsreels and feature films that aimed to be entertaining and avoided discussions of social issues, and documentaries that aimed to educate and rouse viewers. The latter category includes films produced by members of the Workers Film and Photo League in the U.S. and the GPO Film Unit in the U.K. Skaggs’ sympathies are entirely with the socially-conscious documentaries, and this film features interviews with a number of individuals involved with it, as well as clips from their work. His subject is worthy, but the treatment is reminiscent of the kind of documentaries that used to put you to sleep in school, and it doesn’t help that the interviewees are extraordinarily pleased with themselves. It also doesn’t help that they seem blissfully unconcerned by the absence of people of color or women among their ranks (a description that also the film historians interviewed, and this in a film made in 2016!). On a more positive note, the clips included from the various documentaries may encourage viewers to seek out the entire films (many of which are available streaming or on DVD).

The Strategy of Truth: Documentary Goes to War (1933-1945) directed by David Van Taylor, looks at the work of filmmakers like Leni Riefenstahl (perhaps the greatest propaganda filmmaker ever) in Germany, Humphrey Jennings in the U.K., and Frank Capra in the U.S.This film overlaps somewhat with Working for Change, and the same basic format is used in both films. Still. The Strategy of Truth is less sleep-inducing than the first film, and features interviews with several women including historian Jo Fox and Mary Louise Jennings, daughter of Humphrey Jennings . Additionally, given the quality of the films excerpted, The Strategy of Truth may be even more likely to send viewers out to seek the full versions of films seen only in short clips here. On a less positive note, The Strategy of Truth is a lazy about identifying the interview subjects, a failing that is particularly likely to turn off viewers not already familiar with the field. Both films also suffer from their patchwork nature—they give the impression of being pieced together from easily available materials, rather than being planned as coherent wholes—which is not a good approach if you want to interest people are not already fascinated with your topic.

To Tell the Truth comes with a generous package of extras on a second disc. First, there are six extended interviews: actor Alec Baldwin on the importance of documentaries (3 min.), director Agnes Varda on the making of documentaries (18 min.), cultural historian Jeffrey Richards on the British documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s (15 min.), historian Jo Fox on British and German documentaries (12 min.), historian David Culbert on German and American documentary propaganda (10 min.), and film historian Kevin Brownlow on Leni Riefenstahl and German propaganda (13 min.). Two World War II documentaries are also included: “Let There Be Light,” produced by the U.S. Army and directed by John Huston (58 min.) and “The Autobiography of a ‘Jeep,’” produced by the U.S. Office of War Information and directed by Irving Lerner and Joseph Krumgold (9 min.).

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