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Documented, but is it real?

There's a growing debate about 'truth' versus fact in documentaries. Look at the Oscar race.

February 06, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • The line between truth and fiction in documentary and feature film making is becoming increasingly blurred and thin.
The line between truth and fiction in documentary and feature film making… (Alex Nabaum / For The Times )

An unusual number of this year's Oscar contenders for best picture are based on true events: "The Social Network," "The Fighter," "The King's Speech" and "127 Hours." At least one other nominee, "Winter's Bone," although fictional, conveys such a wealth of sociological detail about its rural Missouri setting that it could be used to flesh out a PBS "Frontline" segment on, say, crystal meth's ravages or squirrel-skinning.

But there's a parallel trend in documentary filmmaking. With new camera and editing technology allowing documentarians to construct ever-more complex, nonlinear narratives — and filmmakers increasingly employing reenactments, animated sequences, finely drawn characters, humorous or ironic voice-overs and unreliable narrators to get at what they see as "truth" — some documentaries are playing more and more like fictional films.

As many of the conventional boundaries between fictional and fact-based movies blur, debate is growing among filmmakers, critics and viewers at large about whether this new adventurousness and creativity is simply broadening the possibilities of the art form, or potentially undermining the integrity of documentary-makers and misleading the public. The tension is evident even in this year's Oscar race for documentary feature.

The five nominees include relatively traditional, journalistic-style films such as "Restrepo," a harrowing account of a U.S. Army platoon manning a remote Afghanistan outpost, and "Waste Land," Lucy Walker's inspirational tale about the transformative powers of art.

Then there's "Exit Through the Gift Shop," an outlandish look at one man's fascination with street art and street artists, including British bad-boy graffiti artist-activist Banksy, who happens to be the filmmaker himself. "Exit" has had many viewers questioning whether the film was real or an elaborate hoax.

"I think we're at an exciting stage, where the energy is in this nexus and this cross-fertilization" between fictional and documentary films, says Walker, whose "Waste Land" chronicles a project by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and a group of refuse collectors to make mixed-media works out of recyclable materials from Rio de Janeiro's largest dump.

But she adds a caution. "I support experimentation in general, but I don't believe in faking scenes," she says, speaking generally rather than about any specific film. "There's a lot of ways where, if you're not being truthful, then what are you being about?"

The reasons behind the shake-up in documentary filmmaking are both technological and sociocultural. Walker attributes the development in no small measure to the invention of high-quality, lightweight equipment such as the Red Digital Cinema Camera and new digital editing programs that allow low-budget documentary filmmakers to construct elaborate narratives from hours of out-of-sequence footage more easily than in the past.

Another key factor driving the experimentation and genre-scrambling of today's documentaries, some say, is the erosion of the ideal of the supposedly omniscient and impartial filmmaker who coolly lays out just the facts, ma'am. That's been due in part to changes in other media, including television, newspapers and magazines. As newspapers and the Big 3 television news networks have steadily lost market share, and scripted "reality" TV has taken over the airwaves, new-breed documentaries are being shaped by a culture in which millions of people now regard Jon Stewart's satirical Comedy Central news program "The Daily Show" as a more truthful reflection of the real world than CNN or Fox newscasts.

In documentaries, stentorian-voiced narrators in trench coats are gradually being shoved aside by in-your-face provocateurs such as Michael Moore, in baseball cap and rumpled sweatshirt, button-holing congressmen and corporate CEOs in pioneering films such as "Roger and Me" (1989) and his

Palme d'Or-winning "Fahrenheit

9/11" (2004). Or Morgan Spurlock, cheerfully beating corporate America at its own insatiable game in "Super Size Me" (2004), his Oscar-nominated, first-person participatory saga of eating only McDonald's for a month.

Sebastian Junger, who was an accomplished journalist and bestselling author ("A Perfect Storm") before making "Restrepo" with Tim Hetherington, says he believes that "it's the documentarian's job to go beyond what news reporting can afford to do and really reach in deep to the nation's psyche." At the same time, he says, "It behooves us to hew to a fairly straight and narrow line" — lest, for example, documentarians lose journalistic legal protections to shield confidential sources.

"I think the documentary community needs to have a serious conversation on how it defines itself," he says.

But what about documentaries that aspire to something beyond straightforward journalistic reportage?

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