Thursday, September 1, 2005

We're all cheaters (part II)

Why am I bringing this up? Because I'm planning to cheat in our documentary. But I certainly won't be the first to do it.

If you haven't seen Murderball, the documentary about wheelchair-bound rugby players, you should. Without saying too much about it, I'll tell you that the film follows the USA wheelchair rugby team, and one of their star players is a charismatic guy named Zukan. The film follows another young man, a motocross rider who recently was injured in a motorcycle accident and was feeling very despondent. The film showed him arriving home for the first time and sinking into depression.

One of Zukan's activities is to go to hospitals around the country and talk to young people with recent spinal injuries. He brings along his "Mad Max" style rugby wheelchair and plays a video showing just how extreme and aggressive the sport is.

About two-thirds of the way through, Zukan visits the hospital where our newly injured young man is attending a meeting with other wheelchair victims. It's a great moment --- we see the fire light up in his eyes, and we see how the recovering motorcycle speed-freak might enjoy the speed and aggression of wheelchair rugby.

After the movie was over, the person I was with said "it's amazing how lucky the filmmakers were! Do you think they knew the motorcycle guy and the rugby guy were going to cross paths like that? It looked like they were following them for months before they ever met."

Sometimes it's fun to know how these things work. If I'm not mistaken, here's how it happened:

1) the filmmakers found a good, compelling character in Zukan. They followed him around. One of the places he went was to a hospital to show his wheelchair and talk about rugby to newly-injured guys in wheelchairs.

2) they saw a particular guy's eyes light up. They watched him get excited. They got it on tape.

3) after they were done filming, they asked the guy if they could talk to him some more, and if he would mind being in this movie they were making. He said, "sure."

4) they spent a lot of time with him, interviewing him, following him home when he was released, watching him get depressed after seeing how his new life would go. They got old pictures of him riding the motorcycle and got the rights to use his home movies from his motorcycle days.

5) They finished shooting all the footage they needed.

6) In the editing room, the editor said "hmmm... wouldn't it be better if we made it seem as though our motorcycle guy did his physical therapy, came home, got depressed, and THEN met Zukan? As though we had been following him for quite a while before he crossed paths with Zukan?

I posed that hypothesis to my friend who blinked and looked a little taken aback. "But is that the truth?" she said.

Aha --- here we are again. Is it the truth? Technically no. Is that a problem? It depends on what you believe a documentary is. 15 years ago, certainly 30 years ago, yeah, that would have been a problem. Post Errol Morris, post Michael Moore, post reality-TV, well, nope, it ain't.

Because in a way, the answer to that question is, yes, it is the truth. My guess is, when both of those guys saw the film they said, "that's not the way it happened." If you were standing there when they said that and followed up by saying "but does it represent what happened? Is it true emotionally? Does it get the idea across?" My guess is they'd think for a minute and say "yeah, actually, it does."

This is a big shift from the way docs used to be. Telling the emotional truth instead of the factual truth? Changing the chronology of events in order to be more honest about the big picture? Pretty new ideas for quote-unquote Non-Fiction Film.

One of the things this does is to shift more responsibility to the viewer. The filmmaker, in a sense, is saying "hey, I never said I was going to tell THE TRUTH. I'm telling a truth. Didn't you get that memo? It's up to you to figure out what to do with it." It's the viewer's job now to understand that nothing s/he sees on the screen can be relied upon to be THE TRUTH, and in fact that was never the case. Nowadays, we're just a little more honest about it.

Or, at least, smart consumers of documentary film are. Those who still feel as though non-fiction film really means NON FICTION film probably wonder where all the Voice Over talent has gone. So, let this serve as your notice, if you haven't figured it out already.

Which brings me (finally, please) to my point: if all goes as planned in the editing room this winter, I'll be cheating. This summer, Fermilab was suffering from the drought in a way that no one expected. In order to keep all those super-conducting magnets cool, Fermilab uses a circular river that runs above the four-mile long underground accelerator. When the drought happened, the river and all the other stand-by ponds got dangerously low. There was talk about shutting down the tevatron because of overheating! In a story wrought with difficulties (budget cuts, international competition, overworked equipment) the idea that mother nature is conspiring to add her own straw to the camel's back is pretty hard to resist. The only problem is we had no idea this was happening until it was no longer a problem. So, I plan to add this story element back into the story --- to find evidence build a case, a possibly interview someone as if they were experiencing the drought right then and back-date it. What? Is that ethical? Is that THE TRUTH?

The answer, of course, is yes, and no. If it pans out that way, when you see it in your local Cineplex (in my dreams) you can walk out with your companion with a little twinkle in your eye, just waiting, waiting, until s/he says "isn't it amazing how they were so in touch with all the events that happened throughout the course of the year?" You can say "well, actually..."

Then let's have a cup of coffee and discuss the ethics of Non-Fiction filmmaking. I'll be VERY eager to know what you think.


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Clayton said...

Wow, it's really bad when the comments sections of blogs are getting spammed. Thanks for your relevent thoughts to this blog, anony--- I mean, Ted.

Professor said...

I'd imagine you've heard of Robert J. Flaherty, correct? Last Christmas, I bought Man of Aran for my Mom as a gift. We sat down to watch it and it was pretty immediately evident how much staging there had been of events and the great deal of looping that was being used. I kept watching the screen and then looking at the DVD box again to check that it really was a documentary.

I know that he didn't have the technical capabilities then that we do now, but it really bothered me. To the point where I left the room, just couldn't watch it anymore.

Having read your posts on truth in the documentary, I can see his side of it better, but it still bothers me. I think your possible changes with editing are a much lighter shade of grey.

Sadly, I have not seen Murderball yet. Wanted to when I was in the Land of Cleve, but saw The Aristocrats and Broken Flowers instead. :)

Clayton said...

Sure --- Nanook of the North, his first film, is what some people consider to be the first documentary, or at least the first that had wide commercial success. It's taught in filmschool classrooms all over and issues like truth, manipulation, and artificiality. Recently it has been a trend to give Flaherty more of a break --- it's been more acceptable lately to look more favorably on that film as opposed to deriding it as has been done for decades as a white man's objectification of the Eskimo. Maybe people are looking more kindly on him because they're seeing that maybe his methods were a little suspect (he once told a hunting group that they would have to give up the walrus they were hunting if it interfered with the film) but that he did in fact create a worthwhile little film. Obviously there are lots of problems and contradictions, and that's why this film still shows up in film classes more than 80 years later.

Have you seen March of the Penguins? Kind of a modern Nanook of the North --- complete with a couple of enhanced story lines and suspiciously audible evocative penguin sounds shot in 80 mph winds from many yards away. Still, fun to watch.

Professor said...

Nah, I really wanted to see March, but didn't get a chance. Usually, cleveland is the place for me to see alot of movies that don't come around the KC area (or at least that I can get to), I just didn't get a chance this visit. I plan on seeing March and Murderball both when they come out on DVD.

Anonymous said...

I think you are on the right track. A story is what people want, not just a chronological assembly of facts. Staging is going too far, but juggling the sequence of actual events to make sense of it all is good storytelling.

Maritza said...

Hi, Clayton--

thanks for your post on my blog--I came to see yours and found this interesting post and comments. Since my day job is in journalism, I'm pretty interested in questions of truth.

FWIW, I think your plan to pick up a piece of the story you missed and get it into your narrative as if you knew about it when it happened is A-OK, because the people at Fermilab knew about it when it appeared to be a real threat. That seems to me to qualify as truth since it is true to the story--the events that happened. Whether you the "reporter" knew them or not in the sequence they happened is less relevant. Narrative journalists reconstruct stuff a lot, though it is controversial in the profession about how much you should let the reader know you did that.

I think the Murderball example wouldn't meet my (I hope journalistic) standards of truth because it doesn't adhere to the events of the story or the characters' perceptions of events. So even if in hindsight it felt like destiny to them that they met, it's not true to portray it that way in a documentary, if you ask me.

Anyway, Clayton, thanks for your interesting and thoughtful post on my blog. Hope I've returned the favor.

tickmeister said...

It will be very difficult to know the truth, as it is very difficult to know anything. My criteria for knowledge is a negative answer to the question "Is there any possible way that I could be wrong about this?" If you get strict enough in your answers and analysis, about the only thing that you truly know is that you exist. You exist because something asked the question and whatever it was that asked is by definition you.

You can construct some scenario, however unlikely, by which any other piece of information that you possess is wrong.

One way to evaluate the credibility of anyone who expresses an opinion is to simply ask "Is there any possible way that you could be wrong?" If the answer is "No", I immediately assume that the speaker suffers from the Christmas goose syndrome, i.e. is full of shit.

The question of knowledge is not exactly the same as the question of truth, but I think the analysis works the same. The factual "Truth" may exist, but we can never know it. On the other hand, we have to assume that we can know things in order to function and stay alive. Just don't get all wrapped up in the sanctity of your particular set of assumptions.

andrew said...

They're interesting questions you pose, and I'm glad to see this discussion here. Fundamentally, film and journalism are biased, manipulated constructs from the moments the camera rolls and pen is lifted, so the idea of "the truth" is a bit nebulous and arguably relative.

Though there are obvious differences between rearranging timelines to tell a more coherent or interesting story and distorting facts to suit more nefarious or self-serving motives, the difference between these are shades of grey and decisions for the filmmaker and consumer alike, all to be judged on case-by-case bases.

At any rate, I can't wait for The Long Winter: Cheating in the Editing Room featurette!