Ronald Bergan of the Guardian film blog surveys the history of documentary film and wonders if we should give up...Bergan's piece, "Isn't it time we dropped the term 'documentary' for good?", published March 31, 2009, had been twitter-linked at that time; now, it seems as though truefalse was likely reposting in light of recent high-profile is-they-is-or-is-they-ain't documentaries. Bergan's "argument" about why the term should be scrapped is a hodge-podge of detached tensions that are merely flopped on the page without discussion:
- [article sub-heading] "Festivals now rarely make the distinction between fact and fiction, so let's face up to the truth: nothing is recorded on film without some element of make-believe"
- [first paragraph] Bergin tells story of being on jury at doc film festival where they awarded "the prize" to a film that, after winning, admitted it was not a documentary
- [second paragraph] "there has always been 'cheating' in documentaries", cites Lumière films.
- [third paragraph] cites Flaherty's work on NANOOK
- [fourth paragraph] "Grierson...defined the genre as 'the creative treatment of actuality.' It's one I still hold dear: the faithful reproduction of real life is not achievable - and if it were, it would not be art."
- [seventh paragraph] "In the highly unlikely event of someone wanting to film me at home, I know that I would behave very differently from my normal activities, no matter how much I pretended to be unaware of the camera. It would be a simulation of truth...the presence of a camera alters 'reality'."
- [eight and ninth paragraphs] "The line between documentary films and fiction features has always been a blurred one...[t]here is doubtless a fictional element to documentaries and a documentary element to fiction."
- [tenth, and closing, paragraph in full] "Is not a documentary a fiction that dare not speak its name? This is gradually becoming acknowledged by festivals where the distinction between fiction features and documentaries has almost disappeared. Movies, regardless of genre, compete side by side. Even distributors have become less rigid in categorisation. Isn't it time we drop the word 'documentary' for good?"
It should be clear from this summary that Bergan does not have much interest in thinking about issues of "truth", reality, or representation - some of his points are ridiculous, others merely sloppy. Perhaps for some reason this was a column he felt compelled to quickly scribble some (ill-prepared) thoughts on documentary. Either way, what is of interest is that Bergan admits, perhaps not explicitly or consciously, that the entirety of the history of film - and documentary - is defined by a tension of representation. More, that there is something about a filmmaker's intention to have the audience believe what they are seeing is real is actually meaningful. I do not know the film Bergan cites as having duped his jury, but I suspect that there is a meaningful distinction to be had in understanding the film as a documentary or as a fiction. And as is the case for some of our current crop - I'M STILL HERE, CATFISH, and EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP - there is clearly a reason that the filmmakers want to be, or pose as, documentary. We'll assume that there is more going on for Bergan than a sour grapes attitude for feeling foolish - drop the word 'documentary', it is useless. See! a panel of experts - myself included! - couldn't even distinguish "the real" from "the not real".
Richard Brody, writing for the New Yorker, responds to Bergan on the day Bergan's piece posts, dismissing Bergan's poor rhetoric - though essentially supporting his argument - by citing Pedro Costa's disgust with the term as an arbitrary impediment for the filmmaker in trying to create a certain sense of relationship between audience and filmic characters, mindful that the film and its characters reflect "the uneasy situation of the world". What then to make of this tension that posits a "documentary" as "true", but not "true" in a way that is meaningfully about being in the world (or is it being-in-the-world?).
Taking a step back, we can perhaps flesh out a problem with Bergan's collapsing fiction and documentary. As Errol Morris states in a segment of CAPTURING REALITY: THE ART OF DOCUMENTARY
This idea that there is no such thing as Absolute Truth, that Truth is subjective, that there's Truth for you, there's Truth for me, everybody has their own Truth - for me that's nonsense talk. There's a real world. We inhabit that real world. Things happen. Someone sits in the driver's seat of that car and pulls the trigger. That's not up for grabs. There's not this guy's Truth and that guy's Truth of what actually happened that night.So there is the facticity of what happened, which is what nominally seems important to Morris. But there is also the meaning, or meaningfulness of what happened, AND how this what is being represented. As the filmmakers of CAPTURING REALITY playfully suggest with a piece from Werner Herzog just a minute after the Morris piece runs:
I tell the story in a way where I am searching for, not just the facts, I'm into something which gives you deeper insight to an essence. To a concentration of something that is way beyond facts and that is Truth, as An Ecstasy of Truth as I sometimes call it. Otherwise, facts are not that interesting. If you want to have facts, go and buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan - you've got 8 million entries, they are all correct, they're all facts, but they do not constitute anything.And here is the rub. What do facts, or True Things, constitute? What meaning do they have? For who do they have meaning? What are the meanings? This is assuredly where Morris gets frustrated with an idea of multiple truths, he seemingly cannot reconcile that certain things are meaningful for some and meaningless for others. He wants to lump all those who believe meaning as a kind of truth, perhaps a more important truth (, and seemingly not his truth), are nonsensical. Morris' anxiety on this issue has bubbled several times from his twitter feed, @errolmorris - serendipitiously, just moments ago from my writing this:
- Paragraph 241. Wittgenstein should be ashamed. Tsk, tsk. ("So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?"
31 minutes ago [Sat, Jan 8, 10ish am CST]
- Yes. I should stop pontificating about truth. (I just don't care for the postmodern idea that there isn't any such thing.)
- Whoever came up with the idea that there is no truth must have already been given tenure.
- People who suggest that there is no objective truth should also be sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit.
- People who suggest that there is no such thing as truth should be sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit.
- The problem, of course, is not with reality. It is with us.
Without Morris' recent Wittgenstein quote, it might have been more difficult to tease out the hang-up Morris has with truth. Instead, he perfectly set himself up to betray his misunderstanding by using, of all people, Wittgenstein. Morris' 8 Aug tweet actually exemplifies how he should be understanding Wittgenstin, and that, in turn, should ease his anxieties around 'truth', 'no truth', 'objective truth', etc. Effectively, this comes back around to Herzog's thoughts on facts, and Costa's hatred of the term documentary, that there is something other than the raw facticity that we care about, there is something about meaningfulness that is our enterprise. Wittgenstein folds back in to remind Morris, or to teach Morris, that it does not matter if we call these things "truths" or "objective truths", but that we agree to act in a way that shows we understand the matter-at-hand in the same way. The "truth" of the situation is made difficult, I believe Wittgenstein would say, when there is a breakdown in language. It isn't that we don't agree a trigger was pulled, but maybe we don't agree on the meaning of that trigger pull.
Where then does this leave us with the current anxiety concerning the is-they-is-or-is-they-ain't documentaries? Well, I think it might be most useful to pause on what it is these films seem to (want to) mean. I'M STILL HERE seems to be about an (American?) obsession with celebrity culture. The film is not about Joaquin Phoenix giving up acting to become a rap artist. When we consider the film to be more broadly a commentary on celebrity culture and the garbage-media that supports it, we should have no problem understanding this as a documentary. If we choose to understand the film as about Phoenix in the very mundane way the film depicts his actions, the film is not a documentary. But, as Morris would want to claim, "they" are wrong, there is an objective truth. The truth of the matter is that the film is about - says its filmmakers, savvier critics, etc. - celebrity culture, and not Phoenix's head getting pooped on. Until we can agree to understand the film in the same way, there will be, essentially, a breakdown in language/communication. Part two of this is, does it matter that there is a breakdown in language here? Probably not to many people. Thus, is it meaningful to say that we have some wrong people and some right people? Probably not (in many instances, at least).
Perhaps I'M STILL HERE is an easier object of inquiry for us because the filmmakers quickly admitted their project "was not real" (and Phoenix's retirement was immediately suspected to be a stunt). If we turn to look at CATFISH we have a different problem, we have filmmakers who maintain their film is true despite significant doubt from outsiders. When we return to the question of the film's subject, what it means, we might say it is about boy meets girl on internet. Or more broadly, how it is that social relationships are changing when so much community-building occurs online, and what implications this has for trusting each other as identities are manufactured, or perhaps merely tweaked, as we have a very different presence to one another (as if we don't do this outside of internet relationships). Even if we are still being deceived by the filmmakers, and the truth of the matter is actually something other than represented in the film, the truth about social relationships still stands. But, if it does turn out that the filmmakers did indeed do some googling before they represent themselves googling (and i think the assumption is of course they did), then we have a situation where they have created a film that not only misleads the audience, but portrays the film's subject in a rather harsh light. The more important truth, I believe many would feel, now becomes about how these filmmakers chose to treat people, what their project means for how we use and relate to others.
Why then does documentary matter? For the film projects noted above, it seems the easy answer is that it makes sense to market these stories as "true" both for economic gain as well as to better make a point. Imagine I'M STILL HERE, the admitted fiction-of-sorts, to have been created as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary. How would that have meant differently? And, less importantly, how would it have economically, and artistically, fared differently? I think that I'M STILL HERE, and the other films, to varied extent, would be understood differently in that a mockumentary or "fiction film" is approached - and understood and discussed - as "just entertainment". This does not mean its message(s) aren't internalized in the same or similar ways, but there is a different language shared (getting back to Wittgenstein) that constructs a different reality - a different being-in-the-world.
At a moment when lies and deception are how governments and corporations maintain their powers. As efforts at transparency and shared understanding à la WikiLeaks, in the spirit of Morris' Objective Truth, are persecuted and criminalized, it seems "documentary" is more important than ever.