One of my favorite moments in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary Control Room occurs when an Al Jazeera editor is accused of not being “objective” by a Western journalist, and responds, “This word, ‘objectivity,’ is a mirage.”
With every film critic, journalist and moviegoer about to pass judgement on the “factual accuracy” of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11, I felt compelled to say something about this “mirage” we call objectivity. As Control Room so brilliantly conveys, everyone is biased, coming to the table with their own views of the “truth.” Is the picture attached of a bombed out building in Baghdad the result of American airstrikes or insurgent mortar fire? Depends on who you ask.
Michael Moore has gotten some flack in the past for bending the truth in Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine, but I would argue that Moore is just another manipulative storyteller in a crowded field of manipulative storytellers, which includes everyone from ABC News to CNN to that “objective” purveyor of “fair and balanced” reporting, Fox TV. In his book Spike, Mike Slackers and Dykes, John Pierson counters the Moore-bashing with a quote from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “You can start with either fiction or documentary. But whichever you start with, you will inevitably recall the other.”
Welcome to the 21st century folks! Truth is a very slippery thing. Get with the times. Postmodernism is old news. Who are these people who hold onto such fallacies as truth and objectivity? They’re certainly not documentary filmmakers, who know full well that when you take images and put them together into a representation of reality, it is NOT reality. It is a representation, colored by personal views, cultural contexts and a little thing called editing. Did Andrew Jarecki leave out some important facts in his enthralling documentary, Capturing the Friedmans? You bet he did. Did so-called “verite” filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s landmark work Titicut Follies not employ a powerful use of montage, implicating mental hospital workers in the death of an inmate? Of course it does.
At last year’s IDFA documentary festival in Amsterdam, Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad got blasted because he staged a scene in his brilliant “nonfiction” film, Ford Transit. According to Variety, Abu-Assad believed his film got much closer to the “truth” than many of the news reports being churned out about the Palestinian-Israeli situation.
Then there’s Errol Morris, one of the most important filmmakers working in the documentary form. He certainly has no illusions about the truthfulness of the image-based medium, or quite frankly, the lies we tell ourselves to survive through the day. (After all, he makes commercials.) “When people talk about truth, they have this idea that truth is just sort of handed over to you. Say on a combo platter, the truth combo platter,” he says. “But it doesn’t work that way. It’s difficult to come by, and properly speaking, it’s a quest; it’s the pursuit of an ideal.”