Thursday, December 6, 2007

Truth/False=Documentary/Fiction Film?

Shock of the New: Fresh Directions in Documentary

The final discussion panel at True/False held Sunday afternoon was, "The Shock of the New." It was the most passionate documentary panel I've attended in a while—notwithstanding the provocative "21st Century Documentary: Notes on the Evolving Doc Form" panel I attended at Sundance (the official Sundance podcasts are here.)

Toronto Film Festival programmer Thom Powers moderated a panel of four directors whose new documentaries push the boundaries of the doc genre: Arturo Perez Torres (Super Amigos), Fergus O'Brien (The Armstrongs), Brett Morgen (Chicago 10) and Jason Kohn (Manda Bala).

Here are a few highlights of the discussion:

Brett Morgen: "There's a great book on non-fiction film by Karl Heider called Ethnographic Film which refers to a higher truth in non-fiction. And if you know Flaherty's Nanook of the North, what it refers to is the fact that basically Nanook was all staged, but it's capturing what the life is like in way that probably couldn't be done as well in traditional vérité…I think what I'm trying to achieve in my work is achieving a higher—a heightened truth."


Thom Powers: "I feel profoundly nervous when we separate the word documentary from a search for the truth. It concerns me when people use Michael Moore and his blurred tactics to kind of cast dispersions on documentary as a form— 'Well, you can't trust documentary makers, they aren't applying the same type kind of rigor that say Frontline is.'"

Brett Morgen: "It's so archaic…Look, there's truth in fiction and there's truth in non-fiction. When you see a fiction film and there's a moment that works for you, it's because it's communicating a universal truth. And all fiction film is encoded with ethnographic DNA, so to speak. So, I think this notion that fiction is false and non-fiction is real is totally archaic…In the realm of non-fiction, we need to communicate that it is all about truth, and we need people to loosen up…We as documentarians sculpt performances from our characters from vérité in the same way we do in fiction…It is important to know that there's certain media whose sole objective is to expose a "truth." I think that it's important that there's a difference between reading the New York Times (or New York Post, if you're so inclined) or going to a movie theater. And a movie theater is about dreams and about mythology and about shared experiences. And if you want history, read a book."


Arturo Perez Torres: "You go through sometimes a hundred hours and the movie is actually made in the cutting room. When you're shooting you don't really sometimes know what you're going to get. So you are telling a story in a way that's already told in your head. So you're making the story. So I totally agree with Brett. it's totally subjective, I mean that the notion that a documentary represents some truth—the only truth that it represents is that it happened there, but when it's put together it's your own truth in a way. So it's not 'documentary' as we call it truth in that way…With Super Amigos, what we ran into—the subject is so fantastic that we [needed] to treat it in the truest way. So we [shot] fly-on-the-wall style full vérité—no one looks at the camera, the camera doesn't exist. And we would prepare our subjects: 'Please ignore the camera, we're not here.' What it ended up being was the opposite, ironically. [Audiences] would see it as 'that's totally staged' and we were like 'Wow, If they would have looked at the camera once'… So in a way, vérité almost has the opposite effect as what we wanted…"


Joel Heller (asking Thom Powers from the audience): "As a festival programmer…have you given some thought to how to describe the different sub-genres [of documentary films] in ways that help audiences make sense of this huge tent called "documentary"?

Thom Powers: "I should say that despite my role in kind of challenging [the panelists] with my questions up here, I am interested in the genre of documentary as being as wide as possible. I think it's important for us as filmmakers and programmers and journalists to communicate to audiences that a documentary can be different things and it's limiting when people only think of documentary as say a Frontline show. But I think it's incumbent upon the filmmaker, the programmer, other people involved in the film—to communicate what the level of expectation should be when you're coming to this film. As a programmer, that starts with the program notes that we write in the festival guide that express what the style of the film is that you can expect and it's in talking about the films. And I think that there are things that are maybe pushing the hybrid so far that I wouldn't necessarily program them under documentary section, but somewhere else in the festival."

These are not the only docmakers who have been thinking about the evolving genre. While I was chatting with Director Randy Olson (Flock of Dodos) last month, he said he has been wondering why documentaries are not more clearly subgrouped as fact-based documents or opinion pieces. He cites the usefulness of the way newspapers separate their news coverage from the editorial and opinion pages.

As theatrical documentaries continue to grow in visibility, I expect that this conversation is just getting started.

For me, it's refreshing that in contrast to Albert Maysles' insistence that documentary film can and should capture an "objective truth," a new generation of doc makers are exploring how to make the most of the fact that all documentary sub-genres (even vérité) are still ultimately constructions that reflect the filmmakers' perceptions.

As the doc form evolves, the challenge will be how to successfully represent individual documentary films (and set expectations) in an open and accurate way that supports audiences in appreciating each film on its own terms.

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