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by Jay A. Fernandez
September 21, 2012 4:25 PM
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Documentary Filmmakers Argue the Nature of Truth at Independent Film Week Panel -- And Further Muddy the Waters

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.”

"Beware Of Mr. Baker" SnagFilms

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.”

Mads Brügger in "The Ambassador." Drafthouse Films

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?

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