Billed as “a place to change the world,” The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage has hosted its fair share of world leaders — including eight U.S. presidents. On Tuesday, as part of the Palm Springs Film Festival, the retreat center welcomed a group of international filmmakers with films screening at this year’s festival. Though most of their films would qualify as fiction, the filmmakers found elements of truth in their works, many of which were based on true stories.
At a time when films based on true stories such as “Selma” and “The Imitation Game” are being taken to task for taking creative liberties, the issue of blending fact and fiction was at the forefront of the day’s discussions. Is a fictional film — even one inspired by nonfiction — bound by facts? Even if a film is based on a true story, is there only one version of the truth?
After screening trailers of the filmmakers’ work, the day’s mission began in earnest with Helen du Toit, the festival’s Artistic Director, setting the relaxed tone for the quasi-group therapy session for filmmakers.
Different Versions of the Truth
Hailing originally from New Zealand, Latvia, England, France, Hungary, Netherlands, Israel, Palestine, Mexico, Canada, Serbia/Croatia and elsewhere around the globe, the filmmakers took turns speaking about their projects and what inspired them.
In some cases, as with Signe Baumane’s animated feature, “Rocks in My Pockets,” the material is clearly autobiographical. “My task was not to achieve the ultimate truth…I wanted to reach the subjective truth,” said Baumane, whose film chronicles her family’s history of suicide and depression.
In other cases, such as Paula van der Oest’s Oscar-shortlisted “Accused,” the film is a fictionalized version of a true story about a nurse wrongly imprisoned for the murders of infants and elderly patients. Though there was no contract obligating her to be faithful to the now-vindicated nurse whose story inspired the film, van der Oest said the filmmaking team allowed her some creative input. “Since everything happened to the nurse without her being able to influence it, the producer felt it was fair to her to be part of the process,” said van der Oest. That said, van der Oest said she felt free to take creative liberties, such as conflating several characters into one composite antagonist.
“The Dark Horse,” James Napier Robertson’s award-winning film about a mentally ill Maori man who sets out to take a motley group of kids to the national chess championship, is based on a true story, but that didn’t limit the director. “Ultimately, the film is the master you’ve got to serve,” said Robertson, who added new layers to the story in the retelling.
When Is It OK to Change Things?
“No One’s Child,” Vuk Rsumovic’s directorial debut, was also inspired by a true story. The film follows the case of a feral boy found in mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “In my mind, I had to differentiate between the true story and the story of the film,” said Rsumovic. “If your decision is to make a fiction film, make decisions of your own. If you want to structure things properly, you’ll have to change certain things.”
With “Hope and Wire,” which aired as a TV miniseries in her native New Zealand, writer, producer and director Gaylene Preston created a dramatized version of the aftermath of the 2010 Christchurch earthquakes inspired by first-hand accounts of the disaster. Though it is purely a work of fiction, Preston said she intercut documentary and archival footage with dramatic footage in order to add scope to the narrative. “The characters are made up, but the stories happened,” said Preston. “It’s one step away from reality.”
“Eyes of a Thief,” directed by Najwa Najjar, was inspired by the true story of a Palestinian folk hero who, depending on your point of view, was either a freedom fighter or a terrorist. Najjar told the group that some Palestinians objected to the fact that she changed the protagonist from Muslim to Christian. “I wanted to be true to many things, but at the same time it is a fictional story,” she said. “I have creative right. I was true to the main story. I said it was inspired by a true story, not based on a true story.”
Noam Kaplan’s “Manpower” focuses on the lives of immigrants in Israel. Kaplan estimated that half of the cast was comprised of non-actors and acknowledged that “it sounds like a documentary,” but the film is fiction.
Though his ultra-low budget film “Beti and Amare” is fiction, director Andy Siege said “there’s a lot of me in the film….My main character is me — even though she’s an Ethiopian woman.” Siege explained how his childhood as the son of German aid workers in Africa influenced the film, the first-ever science fiction film set in Ethiopia. As a small child in Zamibia, he listened to fairytales in the village and one of those stories is in the film.
The Documentarian’s Challenge
Even with documentaries, the line between truth and fiction is often blurred, as we have seen in recent years with genre-bending films such as Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.”
When Thomas Burstyn set out to make a documentary about his beautiful, bohemian aunt, the painter Yolanda Sonnabend, he confronted the fact that the vision of her in his head no longer existed in reality. Rather than finding the sexy, dynamic woman he remembered her when he was a child, she is now in the early stages of dementia and is living with her brother, the pioneering AIDS researcher Dr. Joseph Sonnabend. “They are both impossible, self-centered people,” said Burstyn, whose resulting film, “Some Kind of Love” ended up being a much different project that he set out to do. Ultimately, Burstyn found that “you can’t represent a life” in a film.
Whether fact or fiction, ultimately, as Preston put it, “all we have is our own truths.”