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Monday, June 26, 2017

'To Tell the Truth' DVD 2-Disc Set Documenting History of Documentaries

Distributor of "innovative and provocative documentary films" Icarus Films essentially turns the camera on itself regarding the recent 2-disc DVD release of two of the six episodes (plus scads o bonus features) of the PBS series "To Tell the Truth." The Alec Baldwin-narrated "Truth" takes a chronological approach with a period-apt theme.

Icarus kicks things off with E2, which is titled "Working for Change: Documenting Hard Times (1929 - 1941)" and goes on to provide E3. This episode is titled "The Strategy of Truth: Documentary Goes to War (1933 - 1945)."

Baldwin explains early in "Change" that the pioneer documentaries that this episode discusses are a direct response to Hollywood films with candy-coated depictions of Depression-era American life. In pure documentary style, "Truth" lets images do the "talking" in the form of contrasting a clip (that is believed to be from the film "Pennies From Heaven") in which pretty chorus girls sing and dance in perfect harmony with scenes from an early documentary that shows real people sleeping on park benches and living in the shanty towns known as Hoovervilles.

The star talking head in this episode is documentarian Leo Hurwitz, whose work is prominently featured in "Truth." He and the other talking heads, who include film historians, discuss the related importance of recording the reality of life and of showing both country mice and city mice that any grass that is not covered in dust bowl dirt is not greener on the other side.

Coverage of the efforts to suppress the efforts of Team Hurwitz and others to tell the truth is particularly fascinating and still relevant in our current era of "fake news." A primary target of this attempted censorship in the '30s is the coverage of worker protests.

Recognizing the propaganda aspect of documentaries, "Truth" further depicts the conflicts between Hurwitz and his colleagues regarding the focus of the some of the films. The aspects of this (which are especially relevant in 2017) include whether to rely on the intelligence of the American public to interpret what they see on the screen or to nudge them along by making the persuasive elements of the film more blatant.

"Change" additionally shares the sad fate of an early '40s film "The Native Land," which highlights a tragic story of a farmer who simply wants fair treatment. On a general level, a clip of "Native" shows a highly melodramatic scene with greatly exaggerated emoting that pays homage to silent films. On a more specific level, the audience learns how a valid shift in American priorities prevents "Native" from achieving the prominence that it otherwise is due.

"Strategy" begins with the early Nazi propaganda films that are not documentaries in that they falsely depict every German of that era as being on Team Hitler; it further illustrates one aspect of the ruthlessness of the fuhrer regarding attempting to eradicate the evidence of the prominence of a leading Nazi who falls out of favor with him.

The focus then shifts to the American effort to produce films that are designed to achieve the goals of selling the American public on the idea of going to war against Mr. Hitler and to get men who are graduating high school to enlist in the armed forces. A terrific aspect of this is showing how the Allies use a tried-and-trued tactic in using a Nazi method against the Axis.

As the title of "Strategy" suggests, much of the narrative addresses the issue of whether a film that depicts the truth should be considered propaganda. Regardless of the conclusion of the film. the answer is yes. The most relevant response is that even propaganda that supports your view is propaganda. A related reality is that there is your side, the side of the other guy, and the truth.

A highlight of "Strategy" is a segment on an Army film that "documents" the life of black enlisted men. A shared memo that reflects the deplorable racism of the Army at the time leaves no doubt regarding where that film falls on the propaganda scale.

A lighter portion of "Strategy" discusses the amusing film "The Autobiography (apparently no pun intended) of a 'Jeep.'" The bonus disc in the Icarus set includes this documentary.

"Strategy" further demonstrates its exceptional comprehensiveness in addressing the Army recruiting Hollywood royalty filmmakers to produce propaganda movies; the aforementioned bonus disc includes the previously suppressed John Huston film "Let There Be Light." (Unreal TV has reviewed a Blu-ray release of "Light.")

As Baldwin and other talking heads state both in "Truth" episodes and in interviews for the bonus disc, this series nicely highlights the importance of documentaries. These films often are the only way that viewers learn that "the truth is out there." Considering the scandals that have plagued Baldwin, it is especially amusing that he comments in his interview that he fears being the subject of a documentary.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Truth" is strongly encouraged to email me; you alternatively can connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.