Cinema began more than a century ago when Thomas Edison’s assistant Frederick P. Ott took a pinch of snuff on-camera and performed the comic achoo that so entertained his fellow workers. “Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” the first film ever submitted for copyright, also began an aesthetic dilemma. When is film presenting unfiltered reality and when is it faking? Was the sneeze a bit of performance art or a straightforward convulsion?
Today it’s harder than ever to tell whether a “nonfiction” film is life in the raw or a facsimile. What documentary pioneer John Grierson called “creative use of actuality” has implications that are messy, troubling, ethically charged and all around us in the media-saturated 21st century.
Reality programs that stage incidents are a staple of TV programming. Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” warped cinema verité techniques into a smash comedy. The feature “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” purportedly directed by prankish British graffiti artist Banksy, was nominated for a 2011 best documentary Oscar despite suspicions that its story was an elaborate hoax. Werner Herzog freely admits to fabricating scenes in his documentaries in service of a greater truth.
Or, as Stephen Colbert, the Edward R. Murrow of made-up news programs, calls it, “truthiness.”
Is there an implicit contract between documentary creators and audiences that the spectacle onscreen is reality? Can truth be measured by conviction rather than accuracy? Is “close enough” good enough? Those are the questions at hand in “More Reel,” presented by the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center.
As MIA curator Elizabeth Armstrong explained, the series concerns “the slippage between fact and fiction and how art mediums are dealing with the perils and pleasures of deception.” The seven screenings run April 12-25 as part of this month’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, examining how special effects, illusion and the slippery relationship of subject to author to audience blur the borders between reality and make-believe.
“It’s a hallmark of our times,” said the film exhibit’s curator, Bruce Jenkins, professor of film, video and new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We live in times in which discerning truth from fiction is a very complicated business.”
“More REEL” features a pair of Werner Herzog’s boundary-blurring efforts. “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner” is a unique sports documentary profiling Swiss ski-jump champion Walter Steiner. The 45-minute film ushers us into the dreams and drives of Steiner, a loner living in a fantasy world. His soaring leaps into the clouds are filmed in lyrical but blatantly non-naturalistic extreme slow motion. Herzog’s 1992 “Lessons of Darkness” shows the ecological disaster of Kuwaiti oil fields set aflame following Iraq’s invasion. Skyscraping towers of flame and smoke offer stunning images of waste and destruction to the unblinking camera. “You wonder, ‘What planet are we on? Is this a piece of fiction? Or even science fiction?’ ” Jenkins said.
In the musical-comedy documentary “Bells of Happiness” (2012) by Jana Kovalcíková and Marek Sulik, the roles of nonfiction protagonists and filmmakers, pop stars and common folk slide about like deck chairs on the Titanic, as starstruck residents of a forlorn East Slovakian village send their own home-brew music videos to regional pop idols.
Pedro Rodriguez’s “The Last Time I Saw Macao” (2012) is an experimental film whose narrator’s visit to a girlfriend he hasn’t seen in years becomes a shape-shifting tangle as memory interacts and overlaps with the present.
Belgian artist Sven Augustijnen’s “Spectres” (2011) follows a former civil servant whose probe of the 1961 murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, touches on unresolved trauma of the Belgian de-colonization process.
In Jem Cohen’s documentary/fiction hybrid “Museum Hours,” a Viennese art museum guard and a tourist strike up a friendship that is colored by the Old Masters paintings that they view.
Certainly film has no monopoly on deception. “We’re at a moment of great skepticism about the media,” Jenkins said. Photoshop can erase exes from family snapshots. James Frey’s bestselling 2003 “memoir,” “A Million Little Pieces,” was exposed as a con job. The New Republic’s Stephen Glass and the New York Times’ Jayson Blair were exposed as serial fabricators. On Public Radio International’s “This American Life,” contributor Mike Daisey bamboozled listeners with a made-up a piece about workers being abused at an Apple factory in China. Certain news anchors insert unsourced opinion into reporting by claiming “some people say.” Fact-checking political speech has become a full-time job.
Yet film offers a uniquely fertile breeding ground for fabrication. “You’re not quite sure how the person who is presenting these things is shifting them. It’s what I would call the unreliable narrator,” Jenkins said.
The issue bleeds over into narrative films, as well. “Film has a huge new level of responsibility,” Armstrong said. “How true is the ‘Argo’ story? How accurate is the ‘Lincoln’ version? It matters. Because in a generation, that is going to be their knowledge of that history.”
Jenkins argues that fabrication also can be fun. “It’s a new realm for humor,” he said. “One of the pleasures is that we all know what the rules are” for nonfiction filmmaking. “You just shift them subtly. In an odd way it’s terrifically entertaining” to watch an intricately constructed facade of embellishments and lies deconstruct before our eyes. “It’s a wonderful realm for what I would call informed skepticism.”
Herzog baited that incredulous response with his 2012 documentary “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which ended a straightforward tour of prehistoric cave paintings in southern France with a kicker that purported to show a nearby colony of radioactive albino crocodiles.
In an interview on “The Colbert Report,” Herzog defended his segue into wild fantasy. “If I were only fact-based,” the director said, “the book of books in literature then would be the Manhattan phone directory. Four million entries. Everything correct. But I do not know, does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night? I’m not that kind of filmmaker!”