“Nobody Tells the Whole Truth,” Especially in Documentary Film
Meaghan Kelley
501

Orson Welles in F for Fake

“But is it Art?”

Last Sunday was the final day of SXSW here in Austin, a behemoth festival that means different things to different people. For me it meant a marathon of documentary films. Watching documentaries has recently become part of my job, and SXSW this year taught me that one can binge-watch docs just as easily as House of Cards. After capping off the festival with the unsettling Peace Officer on Saturday, I wound down the rest of the weekend by rewatching The Act of Killing and taking down all 6 episodes of The Jinx (I’m in a dark place right now).

Although they haven't yet seen the series, my colleagues know all about The Jinx (sorry guys). Probably just to shut me up, one of them forwarded me Meaghan Kelley’s article “Nobody Tells the Whole Truth,” Especially in Documentary Film, which calls for a “conversation about truth and transparency” with regard to the medium. Fresh off of the binge, I am most pleased to participate.

I’m a doc filmmaker myself, and I feel comfortable claiming that we are all forced to reckon with these kinds of ethical questions right from the beginning. As Kelley asks: “What obligations do documentary filmmakers have to their audiences to present information in the clearest, most unbiased way possible?” I’m going to argue that the answer is none. Documentarians have no obligation to present literal truth whatsoever.

[Important to this argument is that we are discussing the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience, so let’s keep that in mind before anyone gets too carried away.]

Although it is totally appropriate to discuss here, for the sake of brevity let’s skip over the broader philosophical question of whether or not any objective truth can possibly exist. Instead we will take a stab at defining documentary, and from there we can talk about facts, biases, etc., and to what extent any of that should play a part in documentary filmmaking.

I doubt any uncontested definition exists, but if it does I am sure it’s not the whole truth. British Dictionary, via Dictionary.com, offers this:

noun (pl) -ries
a factual film or television programme about an event, person, etc, presenting the facts with little or no fiction.

I like that definition because it is contradictory unto itself and gray, and gray is the area in which documentaries exist. While they may be “factual,” documentaries are no mere presentation of facts.

Fundamentally, a doc is a sequence of images and sounds, carefully selected and placed to tell a story. Sometimes those images are presented as purely facts, other times they may be reenactments (however tasteful), or perhaps animations. Sometimes lies are presented, overtly or otherwise. Whatever the individual elements, they are assembled to represent one and sometimes multiple versions of whatever it was that occurred, is alleged to have occurred, or did not occur. Those versions of events may be true or false to any degree, the only thing we can say for sure is that they will never be the whole truth — and that’s not really the point anyway.

One way to define documentary is by what it is not. During SXSW I was fortunate enough to hear Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) speak. In my opinion, and most everyone else’s, his is among the sharpest minds working in documentary right now. That was on display as he discussed the distinction between documentary and journalism. Journalism, Oppenheimer said, presents facts that we were previously unaware of. Documentary, and art generally, brings to light what we already know, but are unable or unwilling to see clearly.

Documentary is art. Artists are after deeper truths than facts, and audiences would do well to expect some manipulation to get us there. It’s sometimes necessary, and it’s often worth it.

Some of my favorite documentaries deal with deception, sometimes employing it reflexively to reach their larger, emotional truths. F for Fake fools us so we see in ourselves the fraudulence of experts. Forbidden Lies deceives just like its subject, reminding us not to believe everything we hear. Nothing in This is Spinal Tap is real, and yet it’s the most accurate rockumentary ever made. And Exit Through the Gift Shop? Hell, I’m pretty sure Mr. Brainwash is Banksy.

“This is my exact inner structure, done in a tee shirt. Exactly medically accurate.” — Nigel Tufnel, This is Spinal Tap

Much of the documentary world suffers from the unfortunate idea that cinema-vérité is the purest version of the artform. You hear filmmakers claim that style all the time, as though it’s some kind of default. Werner Herzog said it best, and in the best accent, when he recently explained:

“I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings.”

The thing is, filmmaker bias and manipulation are absolutely unavoidable in the process of documentary filmmaking. The presence of the camera will always have an effect on the subject — it is foolish to think otherwise (Oppenheimer calls that a myth). Good films have style, style requires a cohesive vision, and vision is necessarily subjective.

Short of libel, I don’t think there were any ethical lines to cross when Andrew Jarecki got creative with his timeline. Whether or not he manipulated skillfully is worth discussing, as are his choices around reenactments, or how he included himself in The Jinx. But those are questions of aesthetics, not ethics. As Kelley put it: “I’m less upset by the warping of the truth than I am confused by the reasons behind it.

As an audience, it’s our right to say we don’t like the style of the film, the filmmaker, or even just his chin beard. All of that is on the table as soon as the filmmaker puts it there. But it is a mistake to assume filmmakers owe us objective or purely factual stories just because they call it documentary.

For me, the truth of The Jinx was crystal clear as I sat up in bed at 1:30am, my pulse pounding in anticipation of how Durst was about to react.


In between binge-watching sessions, my team and I are working tirelessly to build a sustainable marketplace for documentary.

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