In my first post to SSWG’s Projections, I thought I’d think out loud about the Rat Film (Theo Anthony 2016) and matters of truth and authority on large and small screens.
Rat Film situates itself within a venerated tradition of experimental documentaries that challenge the authority of the voice-over and “rat out” bias in scientific narratives. Luis Buñuel’s surrealist ethnographic documentary, Land Without Bread (1933), is one example that comes to mind. The assertions of the voice-over of Buñuel’s film become increasingly unreliable until, finally, the spectators are told that a mountain goat “accidentally” falls to its death just as we see a shotgun fire (and emit gun smoke) that kills the goat.
Rat Film announces its shiftiness from the start. Just prior to the title credit, the female, clinical voice-over misleads us to startling effect. It’s a nocturnal scene during which we peer into a garbage at a rat with glowing eyes jumping and scratching its way to the top. The voice-over assures us with a “fact” of the limited distance a rat can jump and with information that the garbage can exceeds this distance. Surprise! The industrious rat has overcome the odds and leaped up and out at its spectators. Cue the title.
While Buñuel’s film is a surrealist ethnographic documentary, I’d roughly categorize Rat Film as a sci-fi documentary. Although the film relies a great deal on Charm City knowledge, the spectator is of course required to re-evaluate the entire content of the film when s/he is told that the city, in such disarray, was destroyed on the 4th of July to start anew. Theo Anthony invites us to smell a rat, inelegant pun intended, and reconsider a more equitable urban plan.
What happens, though, when a video, which is not intent to sharpen our skills of textual analysis, does not show us its puppet strings? This month, I stumbled across a re-broadcast of Radio Lab’s late July 2017 program “Breaking News” (below) on new technology that I’d describe as digital ventriloquism (see Youtube below). This technology is readying itself to allow for the forgery of videos in which, for instance, a public figure can be seen and heard speaking words that s/he never said.
Let’s consider mockumentaries and fake news now in tandem. The program’s title alludes, in double entendre, to unreliability, or, the breaking of the news. How can we as artists, educators, and citizens respond to technological advances in fake news on the small screen? What readings and videos would you share that shed light on this issue?