In the lead up to the U.S. elections, two documentaries, one conservative the other liberal, are trying to discredit the presidential candidate of the opposite camp. Dinesh D'Souza's Obama's America 2016 criticizes President Obama, a Democrat, as un-American, while the liberal mockumentary Janeane From Des Moines pokes fun at the Republicans on issues such as health care, gay marriage and the economy. These films attempt to sway voters. But can they?
Dinesh D'Souza's film Obama's America 2016 contends that the U.S. president has a hidden agenda on religion, war and the economy. Since its premiere, the documentary has raked in over $30 million, making it among the top grossing political documentaries of all time.
Nina Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, says films like that aim to galvanize voters of the same persuasion.
"You have to find a way to their heart so that they don't maybe give you $25, but they go and raise more money," she said. "They go out and they knock on doors and they go out and do voter registration and they go out and they get their passion on for whatever sort of political purpose, in this case to defeat Barack Obama."
The liberal mockumentary Janeane From Des Moines appeals to Democrats by poking fun at Republican candidates. It showcases Janeane, played by actress Jane Edith Wilson, as a Republican woman from Iowa attending real Republican rallies.
Janeane fiercely opposes Obama's health care plan until she is out of a job, loses her health insurance and finds out she has breast cancer.
Films like these are nothing new. Months before the 2004 election, Michael Moore released his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 targeting President George W. Bush. The film earned nearly $120 million at the box office.
"The biggest documentary ever! Did it defeat George Bush? No," says Seavey. She points out also that most serious documentaries do not reach a mass audience because of their limited release.
One of them is Alex Gibney's Oscar winning film Taxi to the Dark Side about the abusive interrogations of terror subjects during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Films like this might have an impact but eventually, says Seavey, they are forgotten. She cites Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth about global warming.
“We all thought that it was going to be somehow a revolution of understanding that we have to do something about the heating up of our planet," said Seavey. But, the film concludes: "Well, we still have global warming, and we still show no resolve to making things slow down."
Still, Seavey hopes that small films with a constructive message will make an impression on the American electorate as they enter households through cable and online streaming.