Advocates on all sides of the U.S. health care issue have come out with guns blazing, and the silver screen is the scene of most of the contemporary battles. The most well-known documentary on the issue is the recently premiered Michael Moore film, SiCKO, there are other documentaries and fictional films that have been produced and contrast the health care systems in the U.S. and other countries such as Canada. Thursday morning, Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion with Stuart Browning (Fellow, Moving Picture Institute), Michael F. Cannon (Director of Health Policy Studies, Cato Institute) and Ezra Klein (Writing Fellow, American Prospect) that focused on Moore's new film and other examples of health care in film as the starting point of discussion with clips from three films: SiCKO, Brain Surgery, and Barbarian Invasions.
What was unique about this event and deserves added attention was its focus not solely on health care, but the portrayal of health care in film (the title of the event was "Health Care on Film: Clips from SiCKO and Its Competitors"). There has been a rising trend in the use of documentaries to "expose" problems with the status quo or to raise awareness on a pressing social issue with prominent films such as Super Size Me, Bowling for Columbine, and others leading the way. Film in general is considered a medium that is able to reach a wide and varied audience to convey political messages whether through fiction or documentation. While films may serve as a starting point for discussion and debate over the issues they present, which happened at the event, there is reason to worry that an over-reliance on film may lead us away from rational discourse and emphasize emotional appeals and fallacious groupthink.
This occurred to me when I noticed a common theme in SiCKO: laughter. In many of the interviews Moore conducts, the interviewees respond with laughter, as though even asking the question is absurd. In the UK, Moore's question of how much a patient paid is met with laughter and a "we don't pay here." At Guantanamo Bay, an U.S. soldier laughs as she says that the detainees there receive better treatment than she has ever had. This is important because this kind of laughter subverts the logical analysis of argumentation. When we see others laughing, it is a natural tendency to laugh as well. Laughing makes us happy. When we laugh with others, we are bonded with them in a way that makes us feel comfortable rather than isolated from an intellectual disconnection. When someone laughs on screen at the concept of paying medical bills, the suggestion is that such a concept is an absurdity. It is as if to say, "there is no way anyone can actually think that" or "that situation is so far-out there it doesn't deserve consideration." More so, film allows many of these "laughable" interviews to be collected, condensed into a short segment and then played before an audience as though there is almost no one who does not think of this as absurd. Through film, the threat of groupthink caused by a minutely sized group is not only present, but significant.
This analysis is not revolutionary and much of it has been said before. However, it raises an issue that deserves consideration and recognition. As we use film more and more to convey information and bring information to light, how far should we be willing to accept the medium? And to what extent can we use the medium for purposes of debate and rational discussion when it lends itself to tactics that excite the senses and requires the audience and on-screen individuals to 'connect'?
As a filmmaker, Moore is brilliant at constructing a story that the audience can easily follow and brings them into the film. I am not faulting Moore in any way for employing this strategy in his filmmaking role because it is so effective. I am not faulting the technique itself even because it is merely a tool to reach a purpose. I am merely commenting on the nature of this documentary quality for the sake of understanding it so the average viewer can consider the reason why clips of people laughing are included in persuasive pieces so often. Is there a way for film to balance its emotional biases with substantive information that is conducive to meaningful debate? Or should we interpret film merely as a tool to hook an audience into a message and debate the issues elsewhere? If nothing else, we must recognize that films are not meant solely to present the issues and discourse, but connect with us through senses and influence us in ways that are not traditionally "rational". While debates help delineate what is good and what is bad we are now faced with a more ambiguous position: the sicko.