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Playing This Year: Conservative Documentaries

Phelim McAleer directed the film <em>FrackNation</em>, one of more than 20 documentaries screened at this year's CPAC.
Mike Groll
Phelim McAleer directed the film FrackNation, one of more than 20 documentaries screened at this year's CPAC.

A decade ago, there were only one or two documentary films screening at CPAC, the annual meeting of conservative activists. This year, there were more than 20.

As independent financing and filmmaking becomes more accessible, conservatives are turning to movies to get their message out to a larger, younger audience.

In the main CPAC auditorium Saturday, headliners such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz filled the seats, but it was standing-room only in a smaller room down the hall, too. The conference room had become the convention's theater.

Lights dimmed and a quote from Thomas Jefferson flashed onto the screen: "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."

The film is called Hating Breitbart. It's a documentary about the polarizing conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart, who died last year, not long after appearing at the 2012 CPAC.

"You need to tell a story," says the film's director, Andrew Marcus. "You need to have a protagonist and an antagonist, just basic storytelling stuff."

Marcus says that films like his are the way to get the conservative story out to a broader demographic.

Documentary film has long been dominated by directors who lean liberal. Think Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. That's changing, though.

Just last year, the conservative documentary 2016: Obama's America got wide distribution and made money. The theme of the film is that President Obama's politics are rooted in 20th century anti-colonialism.

"Film offers an opportunity to reach a much wider audience," says Dinesh D'Souza, the writer and director of 2016. He's also the author of Obama's America and The Roots of Obama's Rage.

"My book was a best-seller. It sold 100,000 copies. But this film, 3 million people saw it," he says.

Not only does film itself have a wider reach, but movies are becoming cheaper to make. Digital cameras and accessible software are allowing filmmakers to bypass traditional barriers that once stood between potential viewers and their product.

"There actually is great freedom now to be able to make films that are a lot of fun and are very creative," D'Souza says. "If conservatism doesn't show that kind of creativity, it's going to be confined to a narrow fringe of American life."

But some of the attendees at CPAC say conservative films share a problem with their movement in general: difficulty making connections.

"Conservatives do a poor job of actually talking about the human element," says Mike Warse, a student from Colorado who watched pro-fracking documentary FrackNation.

"We've got economic arguments and statistics and all this other stuff that just isn't really helpful unless you can say, 'This is how what we believe makes somebody's life better,' " he says.

FrackNation is an answer to the Oscar-nominated anti-fracking documentary Gasland. Director Phelim McAleer follows a group of Pennsylvania farmers who want to lease their lands to natural gas companies, but can't because of government regulation.

"There's a real appetite for these kinds of stories," McAleer says. He funded FrackNation with Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website that's already popular with other independent filmmakers. More than 3,000 people donated an average of $70 to help get the movie made.

Hating Breitbart's Marcus says this kind of populist financing can make a big difference for conservative filmmakers.

"The walls are coming down, and artists are going to be able to reach their audiences without the traditional gatekeepers in place, so that's incredibly exciting," he says.

CPAC may not turn into a film festival anytime soon, but the role of movies is growing, both at the annual gathering and in the conservative movement.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susannah George