Gloating about the coverage they’ve been receiving, the producers of Expelled! have finally updated their blog with a rambling defense of their production tactics. If you had any doubts at all whether this film would be honest or evenhanded, I think the cackling, sneering tone makes things pretty clear. It’s also written in the same tone as the bizarre post that vanished from the site weeks ago: i.e. distinctively like your standard internet troll. It’s hard to tell whether or not they are outright happily admitting to lying to their interviewees about the film they were making or not, but either way, their behavior and claims just don’t add up.
Let’s review the basic facts here. Scientists like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugine Scott were approached last April, told that a company named Rampant Films was making a documentary called “Crossroads,” which was billed as a legitimate and searching exploration of the topic of science and religion in our culture.
Instead, the production turned out to be a film that its star (Ben Stein) has said he wanted to call “From Darwin to Hitler” whose theme is 100% pushing the party line of the Intelligent Design crowd. It turns out to have been produced by a different company: Premise Media, which is headed up by two prominent evangelicals. Rampant Films now appears to have been a front: it’s “address” turned out to be phony, and none of it’s films other than the recently revealed Expelled! seem to be real projects. The producers now claim that it’s a subsidiary of Premise Media. Why, exactly, would a tiny production company that’s never put out even a single film to date need a subsidiary?
The major complaint most of the interviewees have is simply the deception involved. A documentary exploring issues of science and religion is very different from one promoting the pointed allegations of the Intelligent Design movement, and by lying to the interviewees, the producers effectively prevented people from ever responding directly the Intelligent Design claims made in the film. Worse, by telling the scientists that the film would be about their personal opinions on religion and science, they no doubt amassed a horde of anti-religious quotes that they can portray as being professionally directed at the careers of religious scientists in general. Sure: I haven’t seen the film, but if they don’t mislead the audience in exactly this way, I’ll be stunned.
It gets even sillier though: in the New York Times article producer Walt Ruloff claims that the film was just later retitled, which he says is “routine in film making.” On the blog, they claim that the “Expelled” idea was something they developed “only after [they] began to see the disturbing pattern and shocking information that the footage reveals!” But as Reason commenter “Roger” points out, these claims are pretty implausible considering that the domain “expelledthemovie.com” was registered on March 2nd, a whole month before any of the interviews with the scientists were even scheduled. That means they were already working, or at least thinking about, the full-on “Intelligent Design is persecuted” theme even while still pretending that they were producing the far tamer and more generalized film described as “Crossroads.” In fact, despite the producers’ claims that crossroads was the working title of their film and may still be a real project, “crossroadsthemovie.com” isn’t registered at all: domain squatter Internet REIT has been selling it since 2002 with no takers so far.
Furthermore, Ben Stein (who again, and I can’t repeat this enough, thought an appropriate title for the film they were making was “From Darwin to Hitler”) is quoted in the NYTimes article lamely claiming that no one he interviewed ever asked what the film was about. This quote also appears highly deceptive, since he apparently wasn’t involved in most of the interviews with the scientists that feel duped (Dawkins, apparently, being a notable exception). I suspect his involvement would have been too much of a dead-giveaway what the production was really up to.
Now, there’s nothing technically illegal about this sort of conduct, and it is unfortunately an increasingly popular tactic amongst “gotcha” filmmakers on both the left and right, but there’s no denying that it’s scuzzy and belies a complete disregard for honest film making.
Anyone can produce a slick advertisement for a point of view: simply leaving out all context and information to the contrary. As films, documentaries live and die on their credibility and realism: the fact that the producers of this film went to such great lengths to dupe their interviewees, almost certainly for the purposes of misleading their audience, seriously undermines theirs, and perhaps fatally. I’ve compared them to Michael Moore previously, but frankly, at least when Moore does his hostile “gotcha” interviews, his targets generally know his reputation and what ideas he’s pushing.