SXSW - Fact or Fiction: Blurring the Lines Between Docs & Narratives - March 8, 2008
Fact or Fiction: Blurring the Lines Between Docs and Narratives
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Austin Convention Center – Room 15 – 11am
Sean Farnel - Hot Docs
Ron Mann - Director, Grass (SXSW 2000)
Jared Moshe- President, Sidetrack Films
Karim Ahmad - Programming Dept, ITVS
Mike Akel- Writer/Dir/Producer, SomedaySoon Productions
Evan Shapiro - GM Exec VP, IFC TV
Farnel opened with a definition of the word ‘documentary’ from the book For Documentary: “images perceived as signifying what it appears to record.” Farnel said that this definition gets to the heart of documentaries and filmmakers have to make a choice about documentary reality. He then points to a sense of polarities in the style of documentary films, those being either cinema verite (ie. Herzog) or stories exactly how they happen (ie. Maysles).
Farnel: How should filmmakers represent the facts?
Mann: All documentaries are propaganda. Some docs are influenced by a hybrid faction/non-fiction form. It’s an evolution of an art form. I think I’m working in the essay form. I’m telling my version of the truth. In the late 1980s, there was a movement of filmmakers being the protagonist. You need to search for authenticity that everyone craves.
Farnel: What is your distinction for documentaries?
Moshe: In some ways, all documentaries are hybrids. As much as you see the truth, it’s the way the director wants you to see it. For example, Kurt Kobain About a Son was a highly constructed documentary that used hours of archival audio and was shot around that structure. For the film Beautiful Losers, they made a different kind of film based on what they had. You have to make a movie for people to watch.
Farnel: What are some choices made in representing events on how they unfold?
Ahmad: For example, Susanne Mason’s Writ Writer is a film of the construction of history. The filmmaker struggled with how to make prison journal writings compelling to an audience. Taking them verbatim wouldn’t have worked as well. She took composites of the journals to portray the subject’s personality. She was upfront about the process.
Farnel: How can documentaries influence narratives? What are some strategies?
Akel: Chalk was a mockumentary with scripted improve using both actors and non-actors. We shot it before ever seeing The Office. We entered it into the True/False Film Festival and didn’t try to fool people there. The dilemma in storytelling is, do the actors know they are funny and how do we use them? There’s tension when using real people mixed in mainly as background performers.
Shapiro: We saw Chalk and didn’t know it wasn’t a documentary until half-way through the film. It works because you can’t tell the difference between the high school administrators and the actors.
Farnel: Are documentaries such as American Teen blurring the lines?
Shapiro: American Teen uses some re-creations. It’s a folly to say anyone is a purist. The second you put a camera on a person, that person changes. It’s a telling of a truth, but perhaps not the absolute truth. Teenagers today manipulate reality with their Myspace pages, telling their own stories. It’s the absolute version of painting a picture, using the elements at your disposal to create a character and story and to dramatize the situation.
Farnel: What is the responsibility of the filmmaker in terms of being transparent?
Shapiro: It is dependent on the point of view trying to be projected. For example, Michael Moore. He risks having his entire point undermined if it turns out it’s been manipulated. It’s up to him to be as transparent as he possibly can. It's supposed to be a work of art, I think it is okay.
Farnel: Is there any responsibility about constructing a scene?
Mann: No. I have a dream sequence in Go Further. I’m working as an essayist. I’m excited about the new form. Tales of the Rat Fink also has both documentary and dramatic elements to it. It’s all scripted, but based on writings. In Grass, there are a lot of re-creations for the point of ironic humor to get across a political message. That’s the tool that I have been using in different genres.
Akel: It’s about context. At True/False, the programmers didn’t want us to tell people if it was real or not. We need to give it some context while we can. I was teacher and it comes from my experience. We have a responsibility to ourselves as storytellers and to the audience, but to what degree is a big question.
Mann: I do have a responsibility to history. Don’t manipulate the facts. Do a lot of research.
Shapiro: Even in history text books there’s some manipulation. As an artist, the responsibility is not to change the facts. Audiences have to come in with their eyes wide open.
Farnel: What is ITVS’ policy?
Ahmad: Most of our projects go to PBS, which has a strict policy. If the film is constructed from the filmmaker’s point of view, PBS may be more accommodating. It’s taken on a case by case situation. Films don’t exist in a vacuum anymore. At ITVS, we do a lot of marketing and outreach to interact with the audience.
Shapiro: It’s interesting that PBS has strict guidelines. The prism is always there. There will always be a perspective on what you do and working within boundaries.
Q: How does fair use fall into documentaries?
Shapiro: I’m trying to push my company on the fair use issue. Trying to create insurance on fair use. Fair use is the only way to not manipulate in the first place on the get go. A very vibrant well-constructed public domain enables us to get closer to the truth. It’s up to the filmmaker to use the Best Practices in Fair Use. For IFC’s Indie Sex, we had to use fair use or we couldn’t do it.
Q: What percentage of re-enactment can there be for a documentary to be considered for an Oscar?
Farnell: The Road to Guantanamo is a good example. It didn’t qualify for an Oscar nomination because it had too much re-creation.