Thursday, September 1, 2005


... for a complete refutation of nearly everything I just said by someone who is clearly much smarter than I will ever be, Errol Morris says there is such a thing as Truth. As much as I complain about him, he is a pretty amazing filmmaker. And he makes some of the funniest commercials I've ever seen.

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.

We're all cheaters (part I)

Eliz, our fund development coordinator, is traveling to Cyprus soon. She's a researcher when it comes to traveling, and has been investigating Cyprus. Just yesterday she commented that she had seen two documentaries on Cyprus, and that they were the two worst documentaries ever made (a little hyperbole, sure). As she said, "just be glad the doc has come a long way since 1975."

It's true: the documentary has been completely re-invented since then. In fact, the bulk of this transformation has occured in the last 15 years. While we might take this for granted now, we must remember that not that long ago it wasn't really possible to conceive a documentary without at least a narrator, and very likely an on-screen narrator at that. If you were to go back and ask one of those documentarians what they were trying to do, they would look at you strangely and say "we're telling the Truth, of course." (and yes, you could definitely hear that capital T).

A couple of years ago I was watching one of the several documentaries about Leni Riefenstahl. This one had been made in the mid-80s. In the first couple of minutes, after setting up the complicated network of contradictions and long controversial history of Riefenstahl's artistic life, a voice-over proclaimed

"Many films have been made about Leni Riefenstahl, but none so comprehensive as this. We will navigate the conflicting information and tell THE TRUTH about this complicated artist and her life."

The truth?

Perhaps the most important double development in the field of documentary filmmaking was when doc makers finally looked in the mirror and had the following dialog with their reflections:

"Actually, no, I'm not telling THE TRUTH. In fact, there is no TRUTH. There is A truth; in fact, there are many truths. I as a filmmaker --- heck, as a person --- can only see my version of the truth. So I should stop pretending that my documentary is the truth. It's actually just my perspective. It's not objective at all."

Then the doc maker walked away, had a cup of coffee, thought about things, and came back to the mirror.

"You know what? As long as I'm not pretending to tell "THE TRUTH" anymore, I guess that means I'm telling a STORY. Hmmm --- I've always secretly wanted to make fiction films. Why can't I apply a lot of the same filmmaking techniques to my documentary --- hereafter known as my NON-FICTION STORY --- that they use in fiction filmmaking? Hey!!"

First thing you know, a lot of voice-over actors were in the unemployment line. Next thing you know, doc filmmakers were overheard talking about "character development," "story line," "plot point," and "point of view." Then they were hiring dollys and cranes and huge crews to get beautiful, dramatic shots. Editors were overheard talking about the transition between the first and second acts, and producers were wrangling copyright fees for just the right mood-building music.

This direction surged out of control temporarily (re: Errol Morris.) but innovative and smart people soon realized they had an amazing art form on their hands (re: Kartemquin) and the notion of documentary filmmaking was changed forever.