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Why This Filmmaker Made a Fiction Film That Feels Like Non-Fiction

Why This Filmmaker Made a Fiction Film That Feels Like Non-Fiction

NOTE: This article first appeared when “Five Star” screened in competition at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. We are republishing it now that “Five Star” will hit theaters on July 24 and VOD and iTunes on August 4.

In Keith Miller’s “Five Star,” the director uses non-actors to create an almost documentary feel to his narrative film. Relying on both documentary and fictional storytelling techniques, Miller blurs the line between the two. Though “Five Star” is entirely scripted, the powerful gang drama taps into a larger truth. Below, Miller writes about how — and why — he purposely blurred the line between fact and fiction.

One of the first questions people ask about “Five Star” is, “How much of it is scripted?” I began to think about the interesting underlying question there, which seems to be, What is real here? For me, the question ends up pointing directly to what interests me in this mode of storytelling, which is essentially political. When we talk about truth, fiction, and reality, etc., we are immediately talking about contested sites of ownership: Who owns this truth? Is it the writer and director or the characters? And by extension, who has the right to claim that supposed truth?

When dealing with a movie like “Five Star” (and my first movie “Welcome to Pine Hill”), this is even more loaded because of the thorny issue of race and representation: does a white man have the right to tell this story? On what basis is the authority to represent given? These questions, both what is real and the ethics of representation, are intertwined for me.

The problems of representation, especially with a camera (still or moving), is hotly contested. While cameras offer a democratic possibility (everyone can take and make their own pictures), the balance of power between the shooter and the shot, the author and the subject, is fraught with potential problems, personal, political and philosophical. 

One way to respond to these problems over the past few decades has been to not represent the other, to relinquish the camera or turn away from it completely. The work of Alfredo Jaar, particularly his incredibly powerful “Rwanda Project,” is one great example of turning away from representation. “Born into Brothels” is an Oscar winning example of handing over the camera to the subjects, albeit not without subsequent controversy. Both these cases, and many more like them, are thoughtful solutions to the problem of ownership, history, representation and image making or storytelling.

READ MORE: You’ve Never Seen a Gang Movie Like The Startlingly Realistic ‘Five Star’

When it comes to the writing of movies like these, the challenge is manifold because it demands that cast, crew, director all enter into the bargain with an awareness that plans might change. Reality has a way of disregarding intent. And even if the story is completely structured, facts on the ground might not work with you.

In the case of “Five Star,” I met Primo and we had an hour-long on-camera conversation that lead to a two-minute piece. We then met up and began talking about making a feature film. Through our conversations, I saw certain things I wanted to address and that were specific to Primo, but also many that touched on some more universal themes, especially set within the context of the school to prison pipeline, fatherhood, gangs,  loss and most centrally, what it means to be a man. In light of the combination of elements gleaned from our conversations, my personal interests, and story ideas I had previously in my head, I set out to write what ended up being the story of the movie.

A search for the ‘real’ that entails breaking the story and dialogue down into scripted and non-scripted, in many ways misses the point.Many of the facts in the movie are directly taken from real life. Names are rarely changed. Certain facts in the story before the casting ended up uncannily in sync with the real life experience of the actors cast. Nevertheless, everything on screen is a performance. It is acted out in front of the cameras and crew, done several times to get the “right” performance, then selected and nuanced in the editing process. All this, because I believe it is first and foremost the task of the storyteller to tell a compelling story, not to be beholden to some vague idea of “truth.” If something hits a spot that has an emotional clarity and urgency to it, then it is, for me, true.

To address those thorny questions of whose story and whose truth, I would say this: all of these questions are about the negotiation toward a truth, toward a reality. My hope is that by engaging in this active negotiation that does not tell you where you are but converses with that idea of location and ownership, one might more actively experience the story. Through this wondering, “Is this real?” the space outside the frame of the movie, the world both off the screen, is engaged for the viewer so that the ownership of that so-called truth belongs to each person on the screen and off.

Keith Miller is a filmmaker and artist based in
Brooklyn. His most recent feature, “Five Star,” premiered at the 2014
Tribeca Film Festival where it won Best Editing for a Narrative Feature. It had
its international premiere at the Venice Biennale and went on to play numerous
festivals including Thessaloniki, Cairo, Rio De Janeiro, Seattle, New Orleans
and many more. His first feature film, “Welcome to Pine Hill,” was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance Film Festival 2012, the Grand
Jury Prize at the Atlanta Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Grand Jury Prize for New
American Cinema at the Seattle International Film Festival, a Special Jury
Prize for Performance at the Sarasota Film Festival and an Honorable Mention at
the Nashville Film Festival. 

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