The Sundance Film Festival has Robert Redford. Tribeca has De Niro. And the film community in Michigan… well… we have the polarizing docudrama director and producer Michael Moore. Yes, filmmakers from Hollywood as well as Iran, South Africa, and Italy flew to the Midwest last week to attend the 2nd annual Traverse City Film Festival, which is the brain child of summer resident Moore. And while the film festival’s motto is “Just Great Movies,” this is Michael Moore after all, so in spite of family-friendly movies at an outdoor space and a few light-hearted cinematic choices, most of the movies had a strong political and moral agenda, to say the very least.

The evils of war, the genocide of cultures, censorship of the artistic process, and numerous government conspiracies were the common themes found in most of the festival selections. While many of the movies depicted the negative ways that politics can influence art, the question debated by many of the successful directors in attendance for the panel discussions seemed to be this: Can art truly change the hearts and minds of the public and therefore have a lasting impact on global politics?

Some directors–like Mark Dornford-May, whose movie “Son of Man” retells the gospel in present day South Africa–stated that it is almost impossible in his country to separate politics from life and art. He made “Son of Man” for the sole purpose of demonstrating how, historically speaking, anyone who stands up for justice and equality is automatically outcast by mainstream society. But other directors–like the Iranian director Mani Haghighi, whose movie “Men at Work” was a festival favorite–said he believed that the media gives so much coverage to the atrocities of war that he feels he must not make his movies overtly political, but instead focus on beauty in the everyday.

Personally, I was alternately shocked, disturbed, and educated by many of the film selections at this year’s festival, which, unlike “Men at Work or “Son of Man,” were primarily documentaries. I am now convinced that the documentary film as an art form is only going to increase in visibility and importance in our cinematic culture.

I have no doubt that documentaries like “The Road To Gauntanomo” and “The War Tapes” will go on to raise awareness of current social and political injustices. But the real question for me is whether or not both audiences and filmmakers understand that documentaries walk a thin line between propaganda and journalism in search of truth. I certainly saw films on both sides of that line last week, and I will be posting my picks and pans on Idol Chatter in the coming days.

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