Thoughts On Honesty in Documentary Films
Documentary films can be many different things. On one end of the spectrum are dry, PBS-sytle educational films and biographies. Straight forward narratives which seek to define truth for the viewer, not challenge it. They inform but they rarely provoke. On the other end of the spectrum, documentary films can provide deep personal explorations, considered portraits, and they can challenge dominant truths. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact-based, educational TV documentary. They serve an important function, but rarely do they contend with the problems of truth that so-often lie at the heart of their studies. Human truth (like it or not) is subjective and that is a problem with which educational documentaries must contend – how far does one acknowledge the contested nature of the human stories they tell? Oh-so-many factual documentaries barely hint at the ferocity of the arguments and debates raging behind the academic scenes. What is presented as simple fact, known and quantified, is often anything but. Indeed, it is usually just one perspective of many, perhaps even a controversial one. Discovering this can be frustrating for audiences who dislike being misled. Impassioned arguments and selective use of the evidence can be highly manipulate.
Of course, more personal, subjective, and reflective documentaries can be just as manipulative. Film is a powerful propaganda tool but the acknowledgement of the self, of the author, in a documentary is an admission of its own subjectivity, of its potential for human error and flaw. Even in the driest educational documentary there is a hidden, though often ignored, truth – the filmmakers’ journey towards their conclusions. The BBC have produced an excellent array of documentary films, particularly for niche audiences, but many of their more mainstream efforts only masquerade an investigation. A film’s presenter sits in an archive, explaining why a given document is important, how it helps to shore up the documentary’s core theme or narrative. In reality, of course, a team of researchers, never seen but whose invisible presence is all over such films, are likely the ones who went on the intellectual and personal journey which led to the sequence in the archive. What debates, questions of conscience, or intellectual leaps of faith preceded the drawing of the presenter’s conclusion? What decisions were made (and by whom) regarding the film’s tone? The Audience does not know. In their attempt to represent truth on screens, the educational documentary can easily become dishonest.
Watch the first promotional video for Looking for Charlie: Or, The Day The Clown Died to learn more about the fascinating story of the suicidal clowns who influenced Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The search for truth (either literal or abstract) is often the most interesting and honest part of a potential documentary – even when the results of that search are not entirely honest themselves. Consider Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. Now imagine that Spurlock had created a film in the mold of a fact-based mainstream educational documentary – a dry voice-over, a simple narrative, a growing mountain of facts, and a presenter who delivers pre-scripted conclusions straight to the audience. The heart of that film would have been ripped out and the resultant piece would have been infinitely less honest as a result. Spurlock’s very human journey is the core of that movie, not the McDonald’s nutritional controversy (even though it is that which audiences seem to remember most vividly). The final film is not perfect but Spurlock’s subjective presence brings an honesty to the process a drier presentation might have easily ignored. We can see that this film document’s one individual’s journey, not a rigorous scientific study. We can see the film maker playing for laughs. We may not agree with what he is doing or how he is presenting the issues at hand, but the final film gives us at least some access to the method behind the madness. The process itself becomes truth. Honesty in Supersize Me is found in one person’s journey to understand their relationship with food; not in the conclusions they ultimately come to draw about the producers of that food.
Making my first feature length documentary film (Looking For Charlie: Or, The Day the Clown Died) with co-director Brett Sanders, I find that I am on a similar journey. At its heart, Looking for Charlie is a film about the comedy double act who inspired Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who died in obscurity by their own hands. It is a deliciously compelling story about fame, show business, despair, and suicide. But the real truth of the film isn’t contained in the facts of these biographies, fascinating though they are. The real truth of our project is in our on-going attempt to really understand and come to terms with the depth of our subjects’ lives (and deaths) and how we are able to relate to them. Like any documentary, we aim to enlighten the world about our subjects, but in our search for honesty in film, we must confront the conflicting truths and subjective experiences that make us who we are, that make us more inclined to settle upon the version of the truth that most appeals to our instincts and our intellect. Only then can we boast a film that will be honest in both style, fact, substance, and spirit.
Truth and honesty, then, are the ultimate goals our project. Truth about our subjects, of course, but truth about our subjective selves, also; truth about how we see the world and relate to it, shaping the way we have made our film and the conclusions we have drawn; and truth about how we have informed the film-making process. Those are the goals we have set ourselves and they will, I hope, be the benchmark against which the success or failure of Looking for Charlie, is measured.
Looking For Charlie: Or, The Day the Clown Died is currently in active production. It is directed and written by Darren R. Reid and Brett Sanders and will be entering post-production in the coming two months. A video introduction to the film can be viewed below. To download the video please RIGHT CLICK HERE and ‘save’ the file. You can download the video directly to your mobile device via iTunes by Clicking Here.