The Thursday afternoon Independent Film Week panel “What Is Real?” sought to delve into the ethics of documentary filmmakers applying fictional techniques to their films. What it ended up doing was nearly erasing the distinctions between cinematic fiction and nonfiction entirely.
A&E IndieFIlms VP Molly Thompson moderated the discussion with panelists Caveh Zahedi (“The Sheik and I”), Grace Lee (“Janeane From Des Moines”) and Jay Bulger (“Beware of Mr. Baker”) in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Discussing the methods used in the directors’ films, the terms used to define them and the reactions from confused audiences eventually led to a more heated debate about whether there are real differences left between documentary and journalism, and between narrative films and nonfiction ones.
The topic is a problematic one ripe for investigation, ever more so in the age of political campaigns that adopt filmmaking techniques to push policy and propaganda, the polarizing perception of journalism as a tool of one political party or another (plus journalists busted for plagiarizing and fraud) and the impact of duplicitous bomb-throwing films such as “Innocence of Muslims,” which was name-checked during the panel. The ultimate question is whether documentary filmmakers have a responsibility to be as neutral and verite as possible in seeking and presenting the truth or whether inserting oneself or otherwise manipulating the story on screen is permissible, even necessary — all of which, of course, is dependent on each viewer’s definition of "truth."
Or, as Thompson said only half-jokingly at the start, a better title for the panel would be, “What is the truth, and do you sometimes tell a little bit of a lie in your pursuit of the truth?”
These three filmmakers did, for different reasons and to different degrees. But they all felt perfectly justified in having done so.
Zahedi’s tale was difficult to understand completely, but it entailed being commissioned to do a documentary about “art as a subversive act” by the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah. The result involved a fiction film about terrorists within the larger documentary that stirred up a lot of angry pushback and was ultimately rejected by the government. When Zahedi then changed its focus to be more of a first-person letter addressed to the sheik himself, he was charged with blasphemy and threatened with arrest, causing the people he used in the film to fear for their safety as well.
“People in the film were really worried that they were going to get in trouble with the government, which is a dictatorship,” he says. “So I had an ethical quandary: If I make my movie good, people might go to jail, get exiled from the country. I had never had this problem before.”
Ultimately, he reached an agreement with the government that he could show the film anywhere outside of Sharjah, but that any repercussions from radical Islamic extremists were out of the sheik’s hands (hence the “Innocence of Muslims” reference). Remarkably cavalier about his subjects’ well-being, Zahedi ("I Am a Sex Addict") plans to show the film as he pleases, but he also sees inserting himself into the narrative as essential to making an interesting film with impact.