...And Nothing but the Truth?
Johnson, Arne, Filmmaker
In attempting to define documentary filmmaking ARNE JOHNSON learns the line between fiction and non is very blurry.
"Look, it's all fiction!" Haskell Wexler practically shouts in exasperation. "Every single bit of it is fiction."
We've been talking about the search for a definition of documentary film and where you can draw the line between fiction and non. Wexler was blurring those lines in Medium Cool before I could tie my own shoes, so his frustration is understandable.
"We're conditioned to accept images and sounds as truth which, in a sense, they are. But they are selected by us as filmmakers, and so they have a point of view. There is no fact, no three-dimensional graspable fact... once you filter what you do through a reproducible medium, it's not the truth of the subject, but the truth of you that's filming."
I mumble something about filmmaking being on a reality continuum rather than divided up into categories like documentary and narrative and he interrupts me.
"For instance in this article, after talking to me for 40 minutes, you will write about what I say and you're gonna pick what I say that will filter through your sensibility, your aperture, and so there goes literal vérité."
This is true (see sidebar). However, Americans have a kind of plainspoken belief in the truth of images that they don't have about words. It's not clear whether this is because we are basically open, trusting people, or that our visual media makers are just phenomenal liars, but the result is that documentary film is invested with a tremendous power of objective truth.
Any filmmaker who endeavors to enter the world of documentary has to confront his or her own ethics and philosophies about truth telling, but perhaps just as importantly, they will ultimately face the expectations and perceptions of their audience. The first part I tangled with early in the process of making my first doc (along with co-filmmaker Shane King), was about children. Before we ever shot a single tape of Girls Rock!, we had extensive discussions about our relationship to the subjects, how we could avoid feeling exploitative and what our overall sense of ethical boundaries were. Even still, along the way, we challenged ourselves while shooting ("should I put down the camera and break up this fight?") and editing ("Do people really need to know about her funny side?") and mostly had to trust our instincts in the moment rather than rely on any clear documentary guidelines.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directors of Jesus Camp, another film about children that is laced with themes about the larger world, don't feel one should back away from that challenge.
"Rachel and I are really interested in all of the ethical dilemmas that filmmakers undergo," says Heidi. "We embrace the fact that documentary filmmaking is a series of ethical decisions. We are very aware of the power in the editing room, but people have trusted us so far."
Rachel adds, "I actually find it appealing that every day in this job you have to constantly make ethical decisions."
While Jesus Camp gives the kids plenty of space to be themselves without judgment, the use of some eerie electronic music and warnings about the cultural war with fundamentalist Christians by a radio host tip their hands.
"With the 300 hours of footage Rachel and I shot, would other filmmakers have made a different movie?" Heidi asks rhetorically. "Probably. Jesus Camp is a condensed, bottled version of a one-year experience we had. We selected the messages we wanted to get across, but does that make it not true? Nothing we put in there didn't happen, but it's real murky sometimes."
Sam Green, the filmmaker behind the acclaimed doc Weather Underground, has a fairly simple criterion for how he guides his ethical hand.
"In the historical documentaries I've done," Green says, "there's always been people involved, and so I felt an obligation to them to be accurate and fair. …