The Filmmaker as an Activist

Lacy Nelson
6 min readJan 5, 2021


“Being that I’m an employee here, my medicine is for free,” says 79-year-old Frank Cardile. “So, that’s why I gotta keep working. Until I die.”

It is no secret there is a health care crisis in America. There is one now, as we fight to save the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — often referred to as “Obamacare” — as it plays out in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and there was one before the ACA was conceptualized and implemented. Realistically, there was a crisis decades before Michael Moore’s stunning documentary “Sicko” was released.

As we pull back the curtain of policy making at all levels, we see there are many people and organizations responsible for lobbying our lawmakers — in regard to health care and other policy issues. But no longer is lobbying just limited to those working on K Street in Washington, D.C. — now it is widespread across multiple mediums, including art and, more specifically, filmmaking.

But where do we trace back the roots of filmmaking as a tool for activism and political organizing? When we look back at earlier documentaries, such as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, we see documentary used more in a way to educate an audience about a different part of the world or a unique culture — such as the tribal Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic. Arguably, it was less an investigative journalistic piece and more of a docudrama venture merging anthropology with the world of filmmaking as an art.

If we fast forward a few decades, we venture into the territory of documentary as a tool to incite change. In 1976, Barbara Kopple released her Oscar award-winning film, Harlan County, USA, outlining the perils miners in southeastern Kentucky faced as they boldly went up against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company. This piece not only highlighted issues and politics within the mining industry, it also served as a catalyst piece to further spur conversations and actions concerning human rights and labor unions here in the United States.

A decade later, Lee Grant released Down and Out in America — another Oscar award-winning documentary, also notably directed by a woman. Like Kopple’s piece, Down and Out in America sought to expose the growing pandemic of poverty in the United States and critiques “Reaganomics” — the trickle-down economic policies President Ronald Reagan and his advocates referred to as free market economics. The point of the film was not to point to the tremendous economic impact of President Reagan’s policies — or rather it was, but “tremendous” being the adjective describing the detriment thrust onto the shoulders of Americans through tax cuts for top bracket income earners and market deregulation.

But why choose filmmaking to highlight disparities and injustices? Humans have been writing for generations about the perils they or others experience in their day-to-day life. Is writing not a good enough medium to adequately get a point across — really get the point across?

“No other media is as emotionally and psychologically impactful as the moving image and having even rudimentary video production skills can be a tremendous asset to political activism,” wrote Matthew Andrews in a 2017 piece for Talkhouse.

Andrews is not wrong. As humans, our brains are wired to be far more engaged and stimulated by visual content. The company 3M compiled research that showcased how quickly and effectively the human brain processes visuals — 60,000 times faster than text. This is why films like Waltz with Bashir work so well; you are not just listening to someone speak about their experiences — you have the opportunity to see these memories vividly illustrated and brought to life. It is the same reason why we tend to have such a strong visceral reaction when watching a video or seeing pictures compared to just reading text on a sheet of paper or screen.

Moore does not hold back in Sicko, and while visually you might not be seeing something as traumatizing as some of the animated and closing scenes from Waltz with Bashir, you are able to see the crippling agony in the eyes of those Moore interviewed. It is haunting, and when coupled with the riveting real life accounts of the hurdles Americans have had to go through to not only access, but afford, health care, it leaves you with an existential feeling of dread and youwonder if we can ever combat this massive entanglement costing people their lives and livelihoods. As the final scenes close out, you might feel angry, disenfranchised or heartbroken. I, personally, struggled with understanding why I put my faith in a country so willing to allow this injustice to happen to its own citizens — and it made me question just what meaningful change I had seen, if any, over my two years working in Washington, D.C. at the federal level.

Simply put, the film sticks with you long after the screen goes dark after the closing scene plays out. Sicko is not a film to be pushed aside and tended to at a later date — instead, it gives you a frenzied feeling that if maybe, just maybe, you act fast enough, organize quick enough, you, too, can make a difference. It is powerful and has the commanding authority to spark hope and incite change.

But has Sicko actually spurred any change? In 2017, Dan Rodricks wrote a piece for the Baltimore Sun, providing a deep dive into what had been done in the decade after the release of Sicko to combat the for-profit health insurance industry still at-large here in the United States.

“I watched Sicko again recently, and while parts of it still left me feeling ashamed and angry, I took consolation in the substantial progress that has been made since the film’s release in 2007, wrote Rodricks. “In fact, some of the central complaints of Sicko are conspicuously dated because of Obamacare, and Americans should celebrate that.”

Roughly three years after Sicko was released, President Barack Obama signed the ACA into law — just over a year into his first term serving as President. The ACA is not a perfect law, with original sponsors and advocates acknowledge this fact. However, the ACA provided some semblance of a solution to two major issues Americans faced — protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and access to affordable health care.

This is not to say Sicko was responsible for the ACA — it would be outlandish to say one film was the driving force behind one of the most comprehensive pieces of health care legislation in the history of the United States. But this does not mean Sicko did not play an integral role in its own way, by highlighting the individual stories of Americans who do not want to have to choose between life or debt when it comes to seeking critical health care — or even life or death.

Moores’ methods are blunter than those used by Kopple or Grant to cast light on issues in our society through filmmaking. He is well known in the film industry for his “in your face” persona and refusal to “beat around the bush” when telling a story. It might be a hard pill to swallow for some, but Moore refuses to concede and continues pushing the boundaries in documentary filmmaking.

“I made this film in the hopes of reaching across the great divide in this country, so I made it in a nonpartisan way. I started with the premise that illness knows no political stripe,” said Moore of Sicko. “And of course, ultimately, Sicko may end up being a more dangerous film because it’s less controversial, because it does reach out and appeal to all kinds of people and not just the Democrats. And because of that, if it reaches more people, it has a better chance of having some kind of impact.”

As we continue to see hyper-partisan attacks on the ACA, as well as other programs designed to close gaps and disparities, we can only hope we see more filmmakers with grit and determination — following in the footsteps of Moore, Kopple and Lee — who are willing to do whatever it takes to expose societal injustices and light a fire underneath our lawmakers to actually do their job — fighting for their constituents, the American people.

Gillett, R. (2014, September 18). Why We’re More Likely To Remember Content With Images And Video (Infographic). Fast Company. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from

Grant, L. (Producer). (1986). Down and Out in America [Video file].

Flaherty, R. J. (Director). (1922). Nanook of the North [Video file].

Folman, A. (Director). (2008). Waltz with Bashir [Motion picture]. Israel: Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Les Films d’Ici, Razor Film Produktion.

Kopple, B. (Producer). (1976). Harlan County USA [Video file].

Matthews, A. (2017, April 18). Why Independent Filmmakers Make Great Activists. Talkhouse. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from

Moore, M. (Director). (2007). Sicko [Motion picture]. United States: The Weinstein Company.

Rodricks, D. (2017, July 11). Ten years since ‘Sicko,’ still seeking a cure. Baltimore Sun. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from

Saunders, D. (2010). Documentary. London: Routledge



Lacy Nelson

South Mississippian. Expat in D.C. Sno-ball enthusiast. Willie Morris fan. Avid distance runner. Congressional swamp creature. AP style purist [mostly].