New film promotes entrepreneurship as divine
FSB reviews The Call of the Entrepreneur, a new pro-business documentary from an ideologically-motivated maker: a religious think tank.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Don't demonize the entrepreneur - there's something divine in what he does.
That's the unsubtle message of The Call of the Entrepreneur, a new documentary screened in New York City last week and produced by The Acton Institute, a Christian-leaning, free-market think tank based in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Based on The Entrepreneurial Vocation, a book written by Acton Institute founder Rev. Robert Sirico, the film tells the stories of three business owners: a dairy farmer in Evart, Mich., a merchant banker in New York City and a Chinese media magnate in Hong Kong.
Couched as an exploration of the positive influences entrepreneurs have on the world around them, the film is intended as an ideological beachhead: Frustrated by the success of liberal documentarians like Michael Moore and Al Gore in steering public discourse, The Call of the Entrepreneur's makers set out to build a countervailing mass-media platform for their own conservative views.
Over soaring strings and rapid-fire cross-cuts between shots of New York and Hong Kong cityscapes and rural Michigan scenery, the film's opening voiceover asks: is the capitalist essentially virtuous or vicious?
Unfortunately, The Call of the Entrepreneur doesn't give that question a serious exploration. What could have been an involving narrative about the creativity and persistence of entrepreneurs instead becomes an artistically and intellectually simplistic exercise in hammering home the Acton Institute's faith-fueled conviction that unfettered capitalism is inherently righteous.
The three protagonists are given little time to tell their stories in any detail. Much of Call's 58-minute runtime is taken up with talking heads, most of whom are affiliated with the Acton Institute, affirming the film's ideology.
"You don't have to be a capitalist to be greedy," Sirico says in one interview segment; later, viewers are reminded that "there are also greedy lawyers, doctors and trade unionists."
Viewers hoping to learn more about the businesses Call's featured entrepreneurs created will come away frustrated; the film is more interested in ideology than the actual logistics of entrepreneurship.
A one-dimensional perspective
Take the case of Brad Morgan, the dairy farmer from Michigan.
Struggling to keep his farm in the black, Morgan started selling manure as an extra source of income, then discovered that his sideline was a hugely profitable business. He made it even more profitable by teaming up with other manure producers to market bulk quantities - a fact Call mentions in passing, and only to highlight Morgan's refusal to take government subsidies. The how, what and why of his work with other farmers - practical details aspiring entrepreneurs could learn from - are ignored.
The film's single-minded focus on the virtues of the free market is accompanied by a Calvinist streak. The entrepreneurial impulse contains elements "of God's original creative act," the documentary narrative states, while arguing that human creativity can only reach its maximum potential in a free-market environment with minimal governmental intervention.
Call's position that business should be guided almost entirely by the morals of individuals - as taught by the church, family and civil society - is a stance that the documentary treats as axiomatic. By never acknowledging competing views, from secular critics and those who favor some role for the government in regulating business activities and the economy, the film wastes its opportunity to build a persuasive case against them.
Call's one-dimensional perspective carries over to its aesthetic style. The portraits of the entrepreneurs consist mainly of seated interviews. Footage of the leaders actually running their businesses is restricted to short clips that add little to viewers' understanding of how the businesses actually work.
So who, exactly, was The Call of the Entrepreneur made for? With no critical analysis, few sources cited outside of the Acton Institute, and no concrete counter-examples examined, it's difficult to see the documentary as anything more than an infomercial for Acton's libertarian religious doctrine aimed at those already inclined to agree with it.
During the question-and-answer period after last week's New York City screening, one audience member noted that while he already agreed with the producers on most of the issues in Call, it had not been very persuasive.
"I'm not sure if I would be convinced to change my view after watching this film," said the attendee. "Have you screened this film in front of a leftist crowd?"
Jay Richards, director of Acton's media division and executive producer of the film, said converting ideological opponents wasn't his top priority.
"We certainly didn't go out of our way to try to persuade people who are dispositionally opposed to the free economy," he responded. In a later interview, he said the film's main goal was to publicize Acton's message.
"A lot of artistic people are interested in a thing in itself as an end," Richards said. "[Whereas] a think tank person is always going to see a film as a means to an end, a means for communicating some idea they think is true."
Beyond spreading its own message, the documentary has a secondary goal: inspiring more in its mold. In an opinion piece published in the New York Sun last week, Richards wrote about the need for "those of us in the conservative and free market movement" to better use "aesthetic media" to promote their beliefs.
"While we've been developing and publishing clear and cogent ideas, the left has mastered the forms of communication that shape what most people believe," he wrote.
The Call of the Entrepreneur has already been screened in various locations across the U.S. and abroad, but Acton is aiming at a larger platform for the film: the group is working to land airtime for the documentary on PBS affiliates. The National Educational Telecommunications Association, a nonprofit organization that distributes programs to public television, has accepted The Call of the Entrepreneur for syndication and plans to make it available to PBS's 355 member stations in mid-February. From there, decisions about whether and when to air the documentary will be up to the station managers at each PBS affiliate.
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