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Documentary Filmmakers Argue the Nature of Truth at Independent Film Week Panel -- And Further Muddy the Waters

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire September 21, 2012 at 4:25PM

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.
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Actress Jane Wilson as the title character in "Janeane From Des Moines"

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.

READ MORE: 7 Tips For Navigating Conflicts in Documentary Filmmaking From Independent Film Week 2012

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.

READ MORE: 'Queen of Versailles' DP Tom Hurwitz Shares 4 Essential Tips for Shooting Cinema Verite

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.

Caveh Zahedi in "The Sheik and I"

“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.

Lee’s “Janeane From Des Moines” utilizes an actress, Jane Wilson, to embody a documentary subject in the context of the Republican primary campaign in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses. Working off a scripted storyline in which “her political and personal convictions are put to the test,” Wilson inserted herself, in character as a conservative Tea Party housewife whose life begins to crumble when she loses her job and health insurance, into real-life situations with then-candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, plus the press corps and other Iowa citizens.

Many audience members have been moved by Janeane’s story, while others have become angered by the discovery that she is a fiction, however true her circumstances might be for some real Americans. Lee admits that she has been described as “deceitful” and challenged on why she didn’t just make a “straight documentary.” One man asked if she was interfering with the political process, to which Lee replied, “No, because this is a part of the political process; it’s part of democracy to critique and have a dialogue.” Having worked in a similar hybrid vein with her film “American Zombie,” Lee added, “I expect some people to be confused, but that’s part of the fun of watching the film. To figure out, Is this real? What is real in terms of what these politicians are saying, anyway?”

When the other panelists debated whether to call what she had done “mockumentary” or a “pseudo-documentary,” Lee said that she had fastened onto the phrases “a work of political fiction” and “a fiction film within a documentary.”

SnagFilms "Beware Of Mr. Baker"

Bulger’s methodology featured the most blatant falsehood, since in his pursuit of infamous Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who was hiding out in South Africa, he flat-out lied and told the musician that he was a writer for Rolling Stone to gain his confidence. (That the violent, drug-addicted Baker later broke Bulger’s nose was perhaps poetic justice.) The rest of Bulger’s experience making “Baker” was more straightforward documentary filmmaking, but the director shrugs off his initial untruth as that of a “manipulative optimist” working in a medium that is “inherently morally suspicious” given that it seeks to distill 75 years of a man’s life into 90 minutes of screen time. Bulger does admit that, since he included the Rolling Stone lie in the film, he worried it would make him an unreliable narrator to the audience, especially since Baker himself is such a questionable storyteller.

But since Bulger’s film had no pretensions to social activism or advocacy filmmaking, his willingess to lie outright to a subject seems definitively less acceptable than, say, the illusion woven by Mads Brugger in his recent fiction-nonfiction hybrid “The Ambassador,” which has come under fire itself for reasons similar to those that Lee has endured.

(The fiction realm has appropriated its own share of documentary techniques, whether in found-footage movies such as “End of Watch” or stunt hybrids such as Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” and “Bruno.” As for journalists, Zahedi said, “Documentary is in a different ontological place than journalism. Journalists do have different standards about veracity and the facts than documentary filmmakers do. I don’t think the same rules apply.”)

Perhaps there really is no difference. As Thompson pointed out during the panel, even Robert J. Flaherty’s seminal “Nanook of the North” wasn’t a “clean” documentary presentation of the Inuit since he essentially cast real Eskimos to re-enact their own daily lives.Octogenarian icon Frederick Wiseman, well known for his verite work, can’t argue for total purity. “Even Frederick Wiseman has to point his camera somewhere,” said Thompson, “so he’s making a choice to leave out some information to give us other information.”

Drafthouse Films Mads Brügger in "The Ambassador."

Manipulating ostensibly nonfiction material is not a new thing. Some of the most revered documentary filmmakers have used reenactments, condensed or rearranged chronology and left out key pieces of information to add drama to their narratives. The question is whether the end result gets at Werner Herzog’s “higher, spiritual truth,” and who stands in judgment? The filmmaker? The audience? The subjects? Does the billionaire husband of Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” have the right to sue over his depiction? Can Venus and Serena Williams refuse to support the Toronto doc to which they provided their participation throughout? Should they, we or the director have expected anything different?

“I actually believed in crossing the ethical line,” said Zahedi at the panel. “I really think one of the issues of documentary is ethics. It’s like crossing an aesthetic boundary. It’s an important thing to cross [to make an important film]. There’s always artistic pressure. How do you make a film good? That’s the motivation for changing realities — this makes it a better film if you do this. And I’m fine with that.”

The last audience member to ask a question at the panel put the debate in its macro context by asking if, then, every film is a work of fiction. And if so, isn’t it silly for festivals and awards shows to insist on segregating narrative and documentary films?

“I agree with you,” said Zahedi. “The distinction is ridiculous. It’s a false distinction based on false assumptions about what a film is. They’re old fashioned, and they don’t understand what’s really going on. They should stop doing that.”

What's do Indiewire readers think? This is a juicy topic for debate, and I invite you to weigh in. Do you think it's OK to goose a documentary story? If so, is there a slippery slope in terms of corrupting the film's "truth?" Does it matter? Have you ever felt offended or betrayed by a purported documentary because something in it was untrue? Should festivals give up on the distinction between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking?

This article is related to: Documentary, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Jay Bulger, Grace Lee, Caveh Zahedi, Beware of Mr. Baker, The Sheik and I, Janeane from Des Moines, IFP, Independent Film Week , Filmmaker Toolkit: IFP