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Filmmakers blurring line between documentary, drama

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2011

The Best Documentary Oscar to be handed out next month could go to a film made by a director who won't reveal his name and that even admiring movie critics concede could be a bunch of hooey.

Welcome to the state of documentary films circa 2011, as makers push the form in ways that some see as destructive. From "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "Catfish" to "I'm Still Here," more documentary films are blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction and being charged with deliberately playing loose with the facts.

Nina Gilden Seavey, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, said talk of "Gift Shop" winning a documentary-feature Oscar — it's on the shortlist of 15 contenders for the final five nominations — is "blasphemous."

"When you think of what it takes for a filmmaker to make a film … the time, the care, the effort to try to get to the heart of a story in a truthful way," Ms. Gilden Seavey said. "Then, to have the critics and public be seduced by all appearances by a falsehood, by a Potemkin Village, that to my mind is a disservice to the form."

She acknowledges documentary filmmakers aren't journalists, and their films shouldn't be reduced to a dull point-counterpoint format. But the current film trends alarm her all the same.

"If you start to question the truth, it all becomes a presumed fiction. And that is a nail in the coffin of the form," she said.

But Morgan Spurlock, whose spry 2004 film "Super Size Me" about his McDonald's-only diet helped documentary films gain wider exposure, said debates over what is permitted in documentary filmmaking aren't new and have been broached by some of the genre's masters.

"When Errol Morris made 'The Thin Blue Line,' they called it heresy that he had some re-creations in the movie. 'How could you do that? That's not what a documentary is,'" he said of the reactions to Mr. Morris' film in the late-1980s.

Thom Powers, artistic director of the DOC NYC Festival, points to films like 1967's "David Holzman's Diary" and 1972's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" as earlier examples of films fusing fact and fiction.

Mr. Powers noted that the latter film even beat out the famed French Holocaust documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity" for the Oscar that year.

"People get alarmed without a real sense of perspective and history," Mr. Powers said. "As soon as you have a notion of what a documentary should be, you're inviting people to challenge that notion. It's a representation of the great vitality of the form."

In the past year, the charges of fakery in some of the genre's highest-profile titles have come thick and fast.

"Catfish," which was released on DVD last week, follows the odd Internet-based relationship between a photographer and an 8-year-old painting prodigy. It has been accused of playing fast and loose with the truth since it premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop," directed by an anonymous British street artist known as Banksy, details the rise of videographer Thierry Guetta to the top of the modern art world, but the comedy film has the air of a movie-within-a-movie prank. Banksy appears onscreen and "takes over" the film we had been seeing to that point because, he said, Mr. Guetta had been messing it up and was a lousy artist to boot.

Besides being in contention for the Oscar, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" already has won Best Documentary honors from the Online Film Critics Society and runner-up status with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Both Banksy and the makers of "Catfish" insist their films are completely true.

But then there was the public furor over "I'm Still Here," the documentary capturing actor Joaquin Phoenix's late-00s meltdown — most notoriously in an appearance on the "Late Show" — and his abandonment of acting for a rap music career.

Director Casey Affleck announced shortly after the film opened in theaters that, contrary to his previous claims of authenticity, the whole movie was a planned stunt, including Mr. Phoenix's bizarre public behavior.

Though documentaries still only account for a fraction of the Hollywood-dominated U.S. box office, the genre's clout has rarely been higher.

Hundreds of nonfiction films come and go unnoticed, but a few documentaries such as the global-warming manifesto "An Inconvenient Truth" and last year's education-reform call to arms, "Waiting for 'Superman,'" have changed the public debate on their subjects. For example, President Obama invited the latter film's child stars to the White House last year.

And the fusion of fact and fiction is occurring on the other side of the divide as some of the documentary genre's stylistic tropes are showing up in — of all places — horror films. Such films as "The Blair Witch Project," "Paranormal Activity" and "The Last Exorcism" all employ documentary elements to heighten their scares.

Those who don't like the new, refashioned documentary format better get used to it. Ms. Gilden Seavey said she routinely has to push her documentary film students to examine whether something is "authentic or not" in class discussions.

"They have a lot less discomfort with things that are not true, or things that are sort of true, and it concerns me," she said. "They have been influenced by reality television. … They're willing to live in the gray areas of the truth."

Jerry Misner, director of the new documentary on illegal immigration, "Southern Exposure," agrees reality television is leaving a mark on the minds of tomorrow's filmmakers.

"Take any reality show on right now. The objective isn't enlightenment, it's entertainment, pure and simple," Mr. Misner said.

Tom White, the editor of Documentary magazine, sees these discussions as "healthy" for the genre, but adds documentary filmmakers should still behave in a responsible fashion.

Mr. White points to the Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, a handbook of professional ethics drawn up at American University as an example of the industry policing itself.

"It's like a physician — at first, do no harm. Respect your subjects who have agreed to be a part of this," Mr. White said.

He adds that while some film critics questioned the validity of "Catfish," others raised their eyebrows over the film's treatment of one character, who appears to be suffering from emotional issues, and questioned whether the filmmakers' public exposure of that served her best interests.

But defenders of not strictly literal understanding of "truth" include some of the genre's greatest artists.

Werner Herzog — director of such documentaries as "Grizzly Man" and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" — was accused of making up a scene about radioactive water creating albino alligators in his new 3-D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."When called on it, Mr. Herzog's publicist said the director seeks after "ecstatic truth," rather than the mere "accountant's truth" of rerecording the world.

Mr. Spurlock made a similar distinction.

"The biggest thing for me is to make films that are honest and truthful, not misleading," said Mr. Spurlock, whose new documentary, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," debuts at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22.

"Being a documentary filmmaker is telling the truth and enlightening people to truths of the world we didn't have access to before."

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