When a lie masquerades as the truth – questions of documentary filmmaking

November 18, 2014

By Elliott Goat

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Janet Malcom, The Journalist and the Murderer

Hosting a debate on the role of fiction/nonfiction in documentary storytelling, David Wilson, founder of True/False film festival, chaired a panel of past True/False filmmakers Kevin Macdonald, Sarah Gavron and Beadie Finzi. He began by asking them all what it was that guided their decision making process that ultimately skirted the line between fictional representation and factual accuracy.

“When you find yourself in a position where you are investigating how to shape a story, how to shape a narrative, how do you determine whether you are going too far or you have not gone far enough . . . that this is right and this is wrong?”

True False

Photo by Dogwoof

Finzi, co-founder of BRITDOC, claimed this was a question of the internal moral code of a filmmaker.

“This is a grey area, a spectrum. Whenever you make a film you’re making a representation of somebody, crafting an impression of them and there is license in that. We all recognise when you are guiding the story for effect by manipulating the characters or enhancing them in a way which crosses a line.”

Filmmaker Macdonald disagreed that this is a line that is clearly defined and recognised by both filmmaker and audience/reader alike, and that the relationship between filmmaker and protagonist remains complicit.

“By selecting and counterpointing elements in any story you are changing what they are. In the end it comes back to what you yourself are comfortable with.”

Referencing Janet Malcom’s opening line from The Journalist and the Murderer, Macdonald acknowledged that you are ultimately using people’s lives and their personal narratives to make your film and therefore “it is, in effect, all indefensible”.

It is Malcom’s understanding of the ‘relativity of truth’ to which Macdonald alluded when speaking of evidence as part of an argument and the importance that chance and surprise play in the construct of this narrative.

For Finzi, this makes building a film “like surfing the wave . . . you have to adapt”. But these are adaptations that affect the narrative arc and, in turn, the consequence of the story.

“There was no greater example of this bombshell than Citizenfour. Laura [Poitras] had already finished a film about the surveillance state when Edward [Snowden] emailed,” starting a process by which an entirely new film would be found and made.

In the case of Citizenfour, this organic process emerged precisely because Snowden realised that Laura Poitras was the filmmaker who really “understood the issue, who was deeply invested in it, who was authentic and serious and who he, ultimately, felt safe reaching out to”.

Questioned on whether this demand for ‘absolute truth’ represented a gold standard or holy grail and justified or explained the methods utilised in documentary films, Wilson replied that “for me and most filmmakers the closest word is actually honesty – which is a little more gut sense – when we are being honest to our subjects, when we are being honest about our understanding”.

“I certainly don’t know any documentary filmmaker who thinks there is an absolute truth that they are going to present to the world but maybe it’s more a case of truths – plural.”

However, for Wilson, transcending and challenging this line remains problematic.

“When you take a glass of water and mix in a single drop of ink you have changed it entirely. It’s no longer clear and the whole thing has now become murky. As filmmakers you find that it’s not ink at all – it does not dissolve like that – that’s not the right metaphor for thinking about how people include elements of fiction in their work.”

Positioning documentary in relation to journalism, Macdonald suggested a story, “whether it’s in a newspaper, on television or in a cinema, is a construct which is by its very nature selective”, bound by the need to have a beginning middle and end, “which creates some sort of order out of chaos is”.

“That’s how the human brain works, that’s how we understand things. We make life bearable by telling stories in every moment of our lives and so documentary (and to an extent journalism) becomes an extension of that.”

While all acknowledged the cross-over between journalism and documentary, none of the panel chose to define themselves as journalists. However, they did recognise the profession as a broad church encompassing artists, filmmakers and journalists; depending on which affected how you viewed the issue of the truth, “according to who you are and how you see yourself”.

With this shift towards interdisciplinary practice, Finzi suggested that the audience had become more demanding and critical of how stories presented as ‘true’ were represented.

“With audiences now, there is an awareness when they are being lied to.”

For Wilson this comes back to the fundamentals of intermedia literacy.

“Audiences are going to bring their own tools to view the film and the sophistication of those tools is what is going to help them figure out their way as a reader. So from the nightly news to the furthest fiction – the truth can be viewed more as a playing field where it is as important to know where a film started from as where it ended.”