Documentary Filmmaking: Truth or Fiction?

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In a world of tight schedules and limited budgets, real people are more often than not getting turned into underpaid actors.
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Point of View is a quarterly magazine about documentary films and documentary filmmaking published by the Documentary Organization of Canada.

Samir picked up his wife’s hand and told her he’d been thinking long and hard about their 10-year marriage. I glanced over to monitor two, a close-up of Veena looking anxious and hopeful. This was their anniversary dinner, after all, and she was expecting heartfelt sentiments and, at least, a bunch of red roses. We all paused, holding our breath. Then suddenly Samir faltered, dropped her hand, and looked searchingly across the hotel room full of camera ops and sound booms for the director.

“I forgot what I had to say.”

The director in question, frustrated and tired like the rest of us on take 13 of the final scene of the episode, reminded him that he only had to say what he felt, that he didn’t have a line, but Samir didn’t want to waste time being honest or thoughtful, he wanted to say whatever we wanted him to say.

It was nearly midnight and the crew was about to revolt. I pulled out my earpiece and walked over to him. “Tell her you love her.” The camera flipped back on, Samir told Veena he loved her, and we called it a wrap. I thought to myself: This is hell, get me out of here.

Actually, it wasn’t hell, it was a lifestyle show–one of my own co-creations that I produced with my partner in crime, Jeannette Loakman, at Chocolate Box Entertainment. In the show, we took boorish, unromantic slobs and turned them into suave gentlemen for their wedding or anniversary. It was typical makeover fare and required just two things–a real person and a happy ending.

How we turned those two things into good ratings was less simple and involved a complex dance of mutual exploitation. We needed to mine the maximum amount of drama out of their lives in the shortest possible time, and they wanted a free suit and fame. After a week of trying to teach Samir table manners and getting him in touch with his feelings, we found our subject had made no romantic progress whatsoever, but he had become a sly collaborator in the process of producing reality TV. Just what poor Veena thought of it all I shuddered to think.

That was 2006. Since then I haven’t made another reality show, but I am making documentaries, and I keep asking myself if they are really that much different. After all, documentary filmmakers are also purveyors of a tell-all, show-all, know-all culture. Everyday life has become pop-culture entertainment, exploited as much by big TV networks and social-media companies as by the Jacks and Jills who offer up their lives in exchange for being noticed.

That makes me, your typical liberal who wants to make a difference with my art documentaries, a bit queasy. What is happening when I take the raw ingredients of life and turn them into an entertaining product? And is that end product an approximation of reality, a blatant exploitation of it, or a mushy in-between that is blurring the lines of fact and fiction?

I know as well as anyone that the best moments are the real moments, ones that haven’t been set up or redone. But in a world of tight schedules and limited budgets, real people are more often than not getting turned into underpaid actors. A lifestyle director I know told me that before every episode, he gathers the subjects and says, “This is your story and we’ll write it together.” The characters are actively encouraged to come up with their own story lines and brainstorm ways to make the show more dramatic and fun.

That’s reality TV, not documentary, I can hear you say. Well, our motives as doc makers might be different but our means are often similar.

Look at one of the genre’s greats: Werner Herzog. In his film Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the subject, Dieter, escaped from a Cambodian prison camp. He had been treated abysmally. After he was free, he went to live on a mountaintop in California. In the film, we see Dieter entering his house and then opening and closing the door obsessively from both sides, over and over, to make certain he isn’t locked in. We realize that it’s something he does every time he goes home. But as it turns out, Dieter didn’t normally do this at all. It was 100 percent Herzog’s creation.

We all know that filmmaking by its very nature has to bend the facts. I often think back to something a respected documentary director said to me when we were in the edit room piecing together a film he had shot. I was just a neophyte producer at that time, and when I saw him borrowing bits and pieces of footage and using them in unrelated scenes, I asked him what he was doing.

“Lying the truth,” he responded with a dramatic flourish of the paste key. In other words, there is a greater truth to which you must remain loyal, but the means by which you express this truth are a bit looser.

The debate over a documentary’s “creative use of actuality,” as genre pioneer John Grierson put it, is one we’ve hashed out many times as documentarians, but now I think it’s only half of the question. The other half is: Whose actuality is it to begin with? What’s happening on the other end of the lens?

I’m part of a documentary community, which has been capturing people’s lives on film for more than a hundred years. Not too surprisingly, our subjects have picked up a few tricks of the trade in that time. Questioning what is “real” and what is not real seems positively old school; certainly most of the subjects we film don’t seem all that concerned.

People are used to being on camera, whether it’s ours or their own, whether it gets shown on CBC or YouTube. So for filmmakers the goalposts have shifted. We don’t just worry about bending the truth of our subjects’ lives, we now have to wonder just how “truthful” are the lives we’re supposedly documenting. There are umpteen cases of outright fraud–the fake marriage betrayal on Moment of Truth and half the stories on Jerry Springer come to mind–and even 2011’s bumper documentary crop produced a few head-scratchers like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish. It’s not as if we’ve turned into a planet of liars, but we do live in a media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed world where your personal story, as dramatic and embellished as possible, is a commodity you can buy and sell.

As filmmakers we’re part of the mutual-exploitation vortex. We self-censor our stories to choose characters that “pop” on screen and edit their stories down for the maximum number of confessions/breakdowns/life-changing events per minute–then release them back out into the wild, subtly changing the real-life vs. dramatic-reconstruction equilibrium as we do so. And the cycle begins again.

From Point of View (Fall 2011), a quarterly magazine about documentary films and documentary filmmaking published by the Documentary Organization of Canada.

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