I begin with the documentary Religulous so that An American Carol and W can be compared more directly as narrative products.
To briefly summarize, Religulous is premised upon comedian and social critic Bill Mahr's quest to understand why people maintain religous faith in the face of overwhelming reasons to doubt. He speaks to leaders and believers in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in order to try to understand their perspectives. At the end of the film, Mahr concludes that religion is dangerous and should be discarded because it will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about the end of the world.
The reader who has seen this film will correctly observe that the previous paragraph of synopsis ignores the fact that Mahr is not really trying to "understand." His mind is obviously made up and he is plumbing the religious leaders, followers, and places of the world for information that will support his position. This is not a new technique, nor is it a dishonest or unethical technique as some might suggest. A film's classification as "documentary" does not mandate a perspective that is fair or unbiased in any way. In the most literal sense, a documentary film documents reality and does not script dialog or stage events for the camera beyond the readily apparant staging of the interview scenario. How that reality is sliced up and reassembled, however, is both a perceptual and ideological task that cannot be avoided anyway. The most obvious evidence of this singular, biased point of view inherent to cinema is that the camera's lens can take on only one perspective. The screen can be split, images can be superimposed and multiple cameras and angles can be employed, but none of this can remedy the basic truth that a camera can only see one thing at a time and that is what the filmmaker chooses to point it at.
Taking full advantage of the power of the medium to focalize events through a single perspective, Charles and Mahr employ several techniques in promoting their anti-religious message. These include "gatekeeping," "reflexivity," "parallelism," "cutaways," and "verite."
Gatekeeping is the most obvious of this or any other documentary's modus operandi. Those interview segments, scenes, and lines of dialog that work in the favor of the documentary's perspective are kept and those that work against it are discarded. Naturally, having seen only the theatrical release of the film, I have no direct evidence that gatekeeping has occured, but it is safe to assume that much footage was discarded in order to arrive at the final product, and that some of the footage may have contained parts that were less than perfect in terms of the film's goal.
The second strategy is actually quite related to the first. Reflexivity attempts to reconstitute some of the context that the viewer knows is missing. Charles and Mahr achieve reflexivity through personal reflections that Mahr offers as the crew moves from location to location. He speaks about is family history and his personal experiences in such a way as to reveal his honest doubts and his motives for doing what he's doing. In this sense he is quite transparent about his perspective and this compensates for the necessary lack of transparency in the filmmaking process.
Paralellism is the third strategy and it is an old technique in both literature and filmmaking. To understand it, one must grasp the difference between story and plot. While the plot is the sequence of events depicted in the film, the story is the sequence of events as they occur naturally in the story that the film tells. The classic example is Citizen Kane's use of Thompson's investigation (plot) to structure the events of Kane's life (story). Using this perspective, I would say that Religulous is "all plot" and is structured more like an essay because it is guided by the logical relationships between ideas rather than the temporal relationships between events. Once again, Charles and Mahr use this to full effect, returning to various interviews repeatedly to remind the viewer of themes emerging among religious responses. For example, in one sequence, the filmmakers revisit virtually ever previous interview to make the point that religion actively promotes and seeks out the "day of judgement" when the world will end.
The most obvious technique employed throughout the film is the cutaway and it is most often inserted during the interview segments to undermine or contradict the factual incorrectness of the interviewee. Michael Moore famously used this technique in Bowling for Columbine during an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesman trying to claim that the United States uses its weapons only against aggressors. The film then cuts away to a sampling of half a dozen instances to the contrary. Cutaways were used for similar effect in Religulous, such as the instance where a "formerly" gay minister claims that there is no such thing as a "gay gene" just before we cut to a breif interview of Mahr meeting with the scientist who discovered the "gay gene." More commonly, however, Religulous employs the cutaway for comic effect and to guide the emotional response of the viewer. For example, when suggesting that the reason the bible skips the first 30 years of Jesus' life because he had an awkward adolescence, the film cuts to a shot of Jonah Hill from the film Superbad (2007). In numerous other examples, old educational films and classic hollywood cinema (e.g. The Ten Commandments) are used to similar effect.
The final technique I will discuss this entry is "verite" and it refers to those parts of the film that were unexpected and stand outside of the director or interviewer's control. Examples include a parishioner of the "trucker's church" threatening Mahr and walking out of the interview, Mahr being thrown out of the Vatican, and various other points when religious figures get agitated with Mahr's presence. The effect of including these scenes is to stand back and let the viewers observe, as objectively as possible, the craziness, defensiveness, anger, paranoia, and general misbehavior of those under scrutiny. To illustrate, merely watching Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda to speak calls his sanity into question.