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Bridging the Credibility Gap - Drawing the Line on Manipulation in Documentary

By Lisa Leeman

From Penny Lane’s <em>NUTS!</em> Artist: Drew Christie. Courtesy of Cartuna

"Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth … The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."
- Pablo Picasso

This past spring, archivist/professor/filmmaker Rick Prelinger wrote a post on Facebook that drew my attention: "I find it amazing that documentary filmmakers are accorded such great authority by audiences, reviewers and scholars when they are not obliged to cite their sources (especially egregious when archival materials are used.)" He added that if he were to write an academic paper or peer-reviewed article without citing sources, he "would be toast." He ended his post by deeming documentary film "generally a privileged form of fiction." While Prelinger posed a provocative and timely question about doc filmmaking practices, it was the comments on his post that really threw me for a loop. A number of posters dismissed documentaries as "propaganda," with one person declaring that doc filmmakers "couldn't care less about truth and accuracy."

Granted, Facebook conversations are highly anecdotal, and may not reflect general public perception, but nonetheless, I found this thread distressing. I—and most nonfiction filmmakers I know—wrestle conscientiously while filming and editing over how to represent the truths we perceive. Of course, that's the key: The truths we perceive. Most doc filmmakers and scholars agree that documentaries are subjective. I started to wonder to what extent general audiences understand that what distinguishes documentary from journalism is that docs are interpretive; they have a point of view, rather than being straight reporting or documentation. Today, when doc filmmakers exuberantly employ elements from the narrative toolkit—re-enactments, animation, stylized staging—to create powerful nonfiction cinematic experiences, has a credibility gap emerged between the general public and the film community? Are our narrative strategies becoming obstacles to audiences trusting our films?

I ran these questions by Pat Aufderheide, communications professor at American University, founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact, and co-author of the 2009 study Honest Truths, which explores ethical challenges within documentary filmmaking. Aufderheide recounts how radically different the reactions of filmmakers and the general public were to Honest Truths, with a number of non-filmmakers expressing "shock and horror to discover that documentary was not simply a transparent revelation of what's going on." Even a lifelong journalist confided that when she read the study, it was like someone had told her there is no Santa Claus; she had been critical of other forms of media, but had always felt that documentaries "were the last stand for simple truth." There it was again—the idea that docs are pure, unmediated truth… Ethics around the veracity of documentary filmmaking has been fiercely debated since Robert Flaherty re-enacted scenes in Nanook of the North. And while we filmmakers may feel that the discussion of objectivity vs. subjectivity was put to bed decades ago, I think it is resurfacing in a new form, and that we filmmakers have some reckoning to do, regarding our "contract" with audiences.

In one corner, we have the "truth claims" of Direct Cinema filmmakers like the Maysles brothers, DA Pennebaker and Bob Drew, the latter who maintained, "My goal is to capture real life without intruding." In the other corner, there is Werner Herzog, who has scorned cinema vérité as "superficial truth, the truth of accountants," and who celebrates a "poetic, ecstatic truth" that is "mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization." But it's the middle of that spectrum where I think audiences don't realize the level of cinematic construction in docs. How many non-filmmakers know that the paragon of Observational Cinema, Frederick Wiseman, has said, "The notion that cinema is the truth, or that anything is the truth, is preposterous. I never get involved in those discussions. Everything is subjective and everything represents a choice. To use the word ‘truth' is incredibly pretentious."

From Penny Lane’s <em>NUTS!</em>

So, why the impulse to re-open the Pandora's Box questioning the "truthiness" of documentary? We're at a historic low of public trust in media, journalism and the political process. A recent study revealed that only six percent of Americans say they have "a great deal of confidence in the press." Many have turned from journalism to documentaries to understand current affairs and important issues of the day. If much of the general public isn't aware of our constructions, and become disillusioned with documentary when they discover the creative choices we make, do we filmmakers need to rethink our narrative strategies and citation practices? Or are we obliged to raise public awareness of how constructed documentaries really are?

Following writer Janet Malcolm's lead, Tom Reston, whose Doc Soup blog appears on the POV website, has written, "Doc filmmaking is a series of little lies stitched together to make a greater truth." This is no surprise to filmmakers—we construct, compress, omit, create links by association and employ an endless arsenal of tricks to create powerful nonfiction cinematic experiences, as well as to convey "a higher truth." But if audiences feel betrayed when they learn of our tricks, how do we preserve their trust while also retaining the creative freedom to shape stories into meaningful and emotional narrative stories?

Filmmaker Penny Lane. Photo: Albert SanchezFilmmaker Penny Lane (NUTS!; Our Nixon) is about to find out. She has just published an extensive set of footnotes to accompany her feature doc NUTS!. Billed as a "mostly true" film, it tells the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric genius who built an empire in Depression-era America with a goat testicle impotence cure and a million-watt radio station. Why the footnotes? In addition to acting on a sentiment similar to Prelinger's Facebook post, Lane admits, "This movie contains ethically dubious choices that I need to confess and explain. I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to annotate this film. I felt I had some obligation to share the results of my research because I'd spent all this time amassing all this information."

Lane reveals her tricks in provocative ways. She has assigned a "Truth Value" category for each footnote, which include "Verified," "Seems Legit," "Omission," "Invention," "Chronological Distortion," "Tricky Edit" and "Trivia" (a combination of director's commentary and miscellaneous information). Lane admits to a number of manipulations that filmmakers frequently use and rarely discuss: revealing information out of chronology for narrative convenience, condensing and editing dialogue and newspaper stories, using sound bites out of context, desaturating color footage to make it look older, using archival material to portray something other than what it originally represented, etc.

In addition to practices most filmmakers would consider commonplace and benign, Lane also confesses to wholesale inventions—fabricated headlines, exaggerations, rewritten historic materials. Perhaps her nerviest invention, to which Lane has freely admitted in Q&As and interviews, occurs in a sequence about Brinkley's use of celebrity endorsements. The narrator cites a number of celebrities, such as Rudolph Valentino. Footnote #34 reveals that the filmmaker made up the idea of Valentino as Brinkley's patient. Lane explained in an interview, "I was trying really hard to reproduce the methodology of this particular kind of quack… And he did have celebrity endorsements—but ones that you've never heard of." Lane says that using Rudolph Valentino was about "trying to make the con work in 2016; I'm trying to really do what Brinkley would have done."

Lane says she opens post-screening Q&As by acknowledging, "There's a lot of stuff in the film that isn't true, and I'm really excited to clarify any of that." She adds, "Often when I tell the Rudolph Valentino story, you can see that half the room doesn't really think that was a good call," and the filmmaker herself feels she crossed a line. However, she stands by her choices and reasons for doing them; after all, NUTS! is about truth and deception, fabrication, manipulation of truth and our desire to believe—and Lane uses her subject's methodology to tell his story. "I did what I could, within the structure of an interesting, entertaining story, to tell you that I've lied."

From Penny Lane’s <em>NUTS!</em> Artist: Rose Stark

Wherever you draw the line on manipulation within nonfiction filmmaking, and whether or not you feel Lane crossed a line, she deserves credit for revealing her filmmaker flim-flammery—something that many of us never do. On the other hand, Lane will have waited nine months after the film's Sundance premiere before releasing the footnotes. "It's a little bit terrifying, and that is why I made the decision not to release them simultaneously with the film," she admits. "I just wanted that first round of responses and critical reviews to be about the film, and not too much about whether I'm a terrible person." Lane's footnotes are illuminating and entertaining, but how many audience members will read them—and for those that don't, what will their takeaways be from the film? How many audience members will leave the film marveling that Valentino fell for Brinkley's huckster goat-testicle cure? And if they do, does it matter?

Aufderheide suggests that one criterion for evaluating the ethics of cinematic manipulations is to measure the ramifications of the "small lie in service of the bigger truth." Is someone being slandered or fundamentally misrepresented? Or, if a filmmaker fudges facts in order to reveal "a higher truth" and then the fudgery is exposed, will the film, and the wider issue, be discredited, doing a disservice to a social justice story? Will the historical record be changed in ways that have social consequences?

For example, Lane admires Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone?, and the re-enactments of Nina Simone as a young girl, but wonders if our community's creative use of archival footage will have unexpected consequences. "There was this moment in [Simone's] childhood that was so profound, so important, they had to create it," Lane notes. "The re-enactments were so beautiful, it's not like Liz was trying to fool us." And yet, Lane adds, "I wonder about that. Maybe in 100 years someone's going to take those scenes out of Liz's film, and someone will put them into their movie as if they are really home movies of Nina Simone." Aufderheide suggests that not only do we need a media literacy campaign for the general public, we also need one for filmmakers. She feels that many nonfiction filmmakers have bought into "the destructive myth of objectivity" and that our efforts to hide our cinematic constructions may backfire on us when audiences feel betrayed.

From Penny Lane’s <em>NUTS!</em> Artist: Krystal Downs

Aufderheide proposes that filmmakers acknowledge and take responsibility for their creative strategies. "There is a movement in journalism to talk not about objectivity, but about transparency," she explains. "Let's not pretend we're objective—not because we're not, but because it's a bad idea to make a promise like that; it increases cynicism." With her footnotes, Lane has thrown the gauntlet out to all of us. "More transparency can't be worse," she maintains. "The answer shouldn't be, ‘Oh, hide your magic trick better.' In nonfiction, there's a contract we're making with our audience to essentially tell the truth, in some way. Most of us honor that commitment. But the range of strategies that is used to honor that commitment is very wide, and it's what makes the form interesting."

Prelinger, who has written a provocative blog titled Taking History Back from the Storytellers, goes even further. "Could we just put these questions to rest?" he posits. "Could we think about documentary practice as something that was really a constant play of the tensions between the different extremes? Whether we were seeing something that was real or not real, or whether we were seeing something that was a projection of the director's ideas or a true representation of what was happening with characters, could we just say, ‘Look, there's tension here'? Can we recognize that it isn't black or white? It isn't binary. It isn't true or false, but it's the slash between true and false that says ‘infinite.' It's an infinite space to play in."

Editor's Note: Penny Lane just premiered a column in Filmmaker magazine, "Notes on Real Life," and in her inaugural piece, she discusses her footnotes for NUTS!.

Lisa Leeman is a documentary filmmaker and professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  She is currently developing the American Veda Documentary Project, and filming a sequel to her first film, Metamorphosis, following the same transgender artist 26 years after the original film won Sundance's Filmmakers' Trophy.