Lately, a debate has been raging about documentary film and the “line” between fact and fiction in some films of the last year, like Catfish.
Working as a screener for the True/False Film festival, I saw several films that seemed to have staged sequences, or were entirely staged. I felt sort of disappointed to learn that I’d been manipulated, though I found one of the films truly gorgeous visually and entertaining. And then I asked myself a question: Does it matter?
Some documentary filmmakers, like Sebastian Junger who helped make Restrepo, believe it does — very much. He’s uncomfortable about the mix of fact and fiction in docs. Others say it’s disingenuous to pretend that there isn’t always some intervention in reality. Camera angles and editing, for example, cause us to emphasize certain elements for dramatic effect.
Josh Fox, who directed GasLand, which showed at True/False last year, has a different take on documentary filmmaking:
“Documentary is an art form, it’s not just reporting…. The world is so weird that you have to portray it in a way that feels real.”
And, strangely, I know exactly what he means by that (though I’m not sure I like that bit about “just reporting”). A good documentary film can get at the strangeness of reality so well. But when I sense people “playing” for the camera, or when a situation feels contrived, I distrust the “truth” being presented.
I hope to show you a short documentary on Tuesday.
But first, we’ll talk about how to evaluate a film. (My next blog post will be about that.)