Got truth?

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.)


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7 Responses to Got truth?

  1. edwardchart says:

    But isn’t the better question whether there is such a thing as reality for fiction to intervene in?

    I mean, this might be the English/philosophy major in me showing, but Baudrillard famously argued that the Gulf War existed for millions of Americans as only hyperreality, with the images shorn from their referents.

    Do you think that there a place in journalism for us to ask questions like whether reality is so readily definable, with the signifiers corresponding exactly with the signified, and to what extent we/the mass media/whatever might be encouraging the loss of the real?

    I’ve always thought that David Foster Wallace’s Rolling Stone essay on where he was on 9/11 comes really close to touching on these questions in a really honest and non-technical way, without all the postmodern theory to junk it up:

    • reedkath says:

      Interesting comment. It is probably the better question, yes. And to some extent, “we/the mass media/whatever” do contribute to the loss of the real. But I think the very best journalism gets at something some people close to the subject would agree is “reality.” What people say when they talk about good journalism is that “it did a good job of showing” something as it really is (at least to the people acquainted with that thing). And so when we talk about great documentary, I wonder if we’re saying more or less the same thing. Reality is too strange to pin down, one director has said (the director of GasLand, I believe) and so it must be presented via fragments, in odd little burst of color and sound — whatever it takes. And now, we are in the world of impressionism, aren’t we? Whatever it takes to convey the director’s idea of the reality is totally fine, at least to my way of thinking.

  2. Anlan Li says:

    A year ago I talked with two German documentary directors (Julia Albrecht and Busso von Müller) about their film featuring the lives of four very different people living in Shanghai. This is what they said about documentaries: “Documentaries have a closer relationship with what’s going on. The documentary is closest to our idea of the process of understanding the country.” I think documentaries have a lot to do with the filmmakers’ own views on issues, and they are often very emotionally involved with the subjects.

  3. kcmoritz says:

    If a filmmaker is going to call his or her work a documentary, he or she has the obligation to present the truth in the film. Although every documentary is going to be biased in some way because filmmakers are human, and individual perceptions of truth differ, there is a difference between that and having actors put on a show for the camera. As an avid documentary watcher, I would be scandalized if I watched a film that presented itself as true and then later found out it was contrived.
    If I wanted to watch a fake documentary I would turn on “This is Spinal Tap” or “Best in Show.” Real documentaries should not be dancing on the line between fact and fiction.

  4. I think this is a really interesting debate and honestly I don’t know where I stand on the issue.

    It seems to be the difference between truth and accuracy. I do believe that a documentary film can tell a powerful and important truth about the world without being 100% accurate. But, isn’t that was regular movies are for? Movies like Blood Diamond and The King’s Speech can tell a truth without remaining historically accurate. Probably because they don’t claim to be.

    Documentaries by definition, claim to be. I understand that filmmaking is an art and that choosing a documentary vs. a hollywood blockbuster could be equivalent to choosing to taking a picture rather than creating an oil painting to a filmmaker/artist, but it does make me slightly uncomfortable that there can be staged scenes in a ‘non-fiction’ film festival. At the same time, I want to see the films. Even the staged ones. It seems to me that a few contrived situations can’t discount the point or message (the truth) of the film. Also, with editing can a documentary ever really be 100% accurate?

    So I’m not really sure if my problem is with staged elements or with the ‘non-fiction’ distinction, but I’d be really interested to hear everyone’s opinion on this. Especially from a ‘journalism’ stand point.

  5. Alahandra Jones says:

    Last semester I took a sociology class. A claim raised from one of this class readings got me thinking about our class discussion today: The questions we raise come from personal prejudice. It got me thinking. Can journalists, can documentary film makers ever document “truth?”

    I thought about film makers and I thought about their subjects. There is the director, the camera, and the subject. Not much of a naturally setting is it? The Camera Effect, or so I’m calling it. When someone pulls out a camera, everyone poses. So I’m thinking, how can we document reality without people posing? Is it possible?

    On Tuesday I said that documentary film should only show “truth,” and now I’m feeling a little different. I forgot that film is an art, an expression, the directors interpretation of the world. And sometimes that world has to manipulated to show true reality.

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