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Fifth Estate-Postmortem: The End of Social Movement Movies?

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(Los Angeles, CA)--The much-hyped "Fifth Estate" recently opened to lack-luster box office figures. The movie was about the news-leaking website Wiki-Leaks, its founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange, and his former spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Armed with a modest website and an army of two, Julian Assange projected such an Internet presence through high-tech smoke and mirrors that threatened global superpowers, which would have made Saul Alinsky proud.  

The Fifth Estate Movie Poster by Participant Media

You would think that the movie would have generated considerable buzz with the recent revelations of Edward Snowden and the trial of Chelsea "Bradley" Manning--whistleblowers are en vogue, right now. However, the disappointing sales for such an important film may serve as a cautionary tale for other Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers.

As a federal whistleblower and public interest advocate, I hope that all whistleblower movies are successful.   Like David vs Goliath, whistleblower stories and social movement movies are an American cinematic tradition. Remember Serpico, Silkwood, All The President's Men, The Insider, and Erin Brockovich--just to name a few. They are a testament of the power of story and film for social change. These successful movies were told from various points of view, the whistleblower, the reporter, the lawyer, union organizer, etc.   But what makes all of these movies compelling is that they are courageous stories of innocent people fighting incredible odds or insurmountable obstacles to do the right thing; they are a hero's journey.

The Make It Safe Coalition (MISC) is an association of whistleblower groups, public interest advocates and NGOs that support free speech and open government. I am the co-founder of the International Association of Whistleblowers and the chief organizer of the Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights, which is an annual gathering that meets on Capitol Hill. We have legislative caucuses, book signings and film screenings. Amanda Farrand from Participant Media attended our summit this year and screened clips from "The Fifth Estate" at the National Press Club. A lively discussion ensued, and the audience was genuinely supportive but offered constructive criticism including suggesting that real whistleblowers be included in focus groups before the films general release.

"The Fifth Estate" was marketed as a film about the worlds most dangerous website. However, the most provocative question presented in the movie is the tension between limited or calculated dissemination of confidential governmental information vs a more radical complete anti-secret paradigm, i.e., no government secretes--no redactions, no protection of sources, etc.

Julian Assange is an important historical figure, but he is not a whistleblower. Chelsea Manning is the whistleblower; Julian Assange is a publisher. He has much more in common with Andrew Breitbart than Daniel Ellsberg. And it is difficult to make a compelling film about a website or produce a good whistleblower movie about someone who is not a real whistleblower.   After all, you can make a movie about "BigGovernment.com"--but it wouldn't be a whistle-blower story. Which motion picture would you rather go see; a flick about a website or a feature film about a transgender whistleblower in the Army who fought to expose war corruption within the United States military?

The entire whistleblower community supports Participant Media and their commitment to whistleblowers and social movement movies. Participant Media is Hollywood film and television production company, which finances and produces socially relevant films and documentaries. A politically active production company, its films are based on current events and topical subjects--presented in such a way to inspire viewers to advocate for social change. The studio has produced or co-produced a number of award-winning fiction films and documentaries.

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We want to broaden our collaborative efforts for social change through advocacy, education and entertainment. We applaud Participant Media's commitment to producing whistleblower stories. Unfortunately, two recent forays into this genre have left that studio with less-than stellar results. Perhaps Participant Media is attempting to tell whistleblowers stories with a non-traditional edge, but this is not their first whistleblower film that widely missed the mark.

"The Informant" also opened to less than rave reviews. The movie was loosely based on the story of one individual who helped break the largest corporate corruption case (at that time) and involved a world-wide food price-fixing scheme. In that film, the protagonist was presented not as a troubled hero, but instead as a comic dupe--and thus represented whistleblowers by implication as wild-eyed caricatures. While we should all be able to laugh at ourselves; whistle-blowing is not a laughing matter.

Maybe if the film was not based on such a serious matter or a true story, we could see the humor in it. But for real life whistleblowers the sacrifices made are too great and devastation suffered all too real--and thus, not funny at all. Worse still, the comic portrayal demeaned the very real sacrifices made and persecution endured for the public interest. Unfortunately, that depiction represented whistleblowers in a distorted and potentially dismissive light that casts a degrading pall by implication if not intention. The future of social movement cinema lies in telling compelling character driven stories (not movement) and connecting with the relevant communities of interest.

The people, as citizen journalists, are the Fifth Estate in the Julian Assange movie.   I host a show by the same name which airs of the Pacifica Radio Network. I believe that whistleblowers are the true Fifth Estate protecting freedom and liberty. "The Fifth Estate" is the only radio program about whistleblowers, produced by whistleblowers and told from the whistleblower's point of view. It continues in the tradition of free-speech activism, like "Democracy Now" Pacifica's iconic news program, and other award-winning radio shows.


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Michael McCray, Esq., is the author of Race, Power and Politics--the Inside ACORN Story, (www.acorn8.com) and host of the Fifth Estate, which airs on Pacific Radio Network (www.5thEstate.us). Follow him on Twitter @McCrayAuthor.


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Michael McCray is a public interest advocate who combats racism and corruption in the government and other institutions which deprive individuals of their basic civil rights, human rights and constitutional liberties. McCray is co-chair of the (more...)

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The story of Julian Assange and Wiki-Leaks is vita... by Michael McCray on Wednesday, Nov 13, 2013 at 2:13:13 PM
How/where does one draw the line in the sand re: w... by Judy Swindler on Wednesday, Nov 13, 2013 at 2:15:10 PM
Great question. That's one the whistleblower commu... by Michael McCray on Thursday, Nov 14, 2013 at 10:56:06 AM
Many people talk of CHANGE...but to make CHANGE ha... by Tanya Ward Jordan on Friday, Nov 15, 2013 at 10:23:20 AM