In the twenty-first century we can no longer trust that “seeing is believing” or “the camera never lies”; we know otherwise.And
the willingness of highly partisan filmmakers to subordinate honesty to
ideology has shown that even when the form of a documentary is factual,
the content may not be.When truth matters, credibility
counts, and the next big event in the evolution of documentary
filmmaking may well be about dealing with an erosion of confidence in
the truth of documentaries.
What happens to the credibility of documentary films when what is shown isn’t what it seems to be?What
happens when the evidence presented may be based on fact, but has been
put together in a way that implies something other than the truth of
the situation?What happens when a documentary film
presents only one view of a controversy, as if no other interpretation
were possible — or even existed?What happens when the documentarian cheats, even though it is in what he or she perceives to be a good cause?What
happens when people calling themselves documentarians lie, and persist
in presenting the lie even after its falsity has been demonstrated?
How big a
step is it from manipulating the people and events in a reality TV
series — to make the show more interesting — to manipulating the people
and events in a documentary for the same reason?Unfortunately,
history teaches that the path to corruption often starts as an apparent
shortcut, a little bit easier way to reach your goal.But it’s a slippery slope, perhaps shallow at first but gradually growing steeper.Once on, it’s hard to get off.And once caught, it’s hard ever to be trusted again.
In any documentary of events as they occur, the temptation is always there to nudge things in a preferred direction.But the moment that happens, you are no longer documenting a unique event with the outcome unknown.You’re influencing the outcome.And what might be learned from the film has been tainted.It can no longer be considered valid.
the television audience learns more about the nature of producing
reality TV programs, they can’t help but realize that even though what
is shown is real in the sense that it happened, it’s still a TV show.They know that people and events have been fiddled with to make a better story.Or most of them do.There
still are some people who believe televised professional wrestling is a
competition in which the best man or woman wins, and that a Nigerian
official wants to park several million dollars in their bank account in
order to do business in the United States.
most people by now have some doubts about reality TV, and these may
begin to carry over to documentary films that purport to have been made
in reality situations.Which means documentarians must be even more careful during filming and editing to present not only what is real, but also what is true. Digital Images Morph Easily
It has always
been possible to alter pictures through special visual effects, but
until quite recently the results were both expensive to achieve and
often not completely convincing.The marriage of
filmmaking to digital technology has made it possible to alter images
of things that are, and create images of things that never were,
sometimes with just the press of a button.
technology exists to create any setting in any way one likes, or to
show any person — living, dead, or imaginary — doing and saying
whatever one wants.In the feature film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law perform in a digital world created by computer.It’s all in good fun, but it demonstrates a highly developed technology for fakery.In
television commercials, Budweiser horses play football, and dead movie
stars shill for products that didn’t exist when they were alive.Audiences know anything is possible, and we can’t tell the truth of what we’re seeing by looking at it.The picture no longer automatically speaks the name of its referent.
In the History Channel documentary The French Revolution, thirty-eight actors become a cinematic mob of hundreds of peasants, storming the Bastille.In a The Making of . . . featurette
for a recent feature film, the director happily explained how a hundred
extras became the audience for a public event in the story, digitally
duplicated until they filled the entire public space.So
technology now provides techniques that could turn a handful of actual
supporters or protestors into an apparent multitude for or against some
issue in a political or social documentary.
Global warming offers an excellent case in point, and I use it as an example several times in this book. First,
because it is a complex topic that brings together scientists from many
disciplines and involves research conducted over a century and a half.Therefore,
making a thorough documentary investigation of the subject would almost
certainly exceed the filmmaker’s own knowledge, requiring additional
research, most likely through interviews with a number of scientists
believed to be authorities on the topic. Second, because global warming clearly is a controversial issue, what you are likely to learn about it depends on whom you ask.On
one side is a group of scientists, politicians, and journalists who are
committed to the position that global warming is a looming crisis
caused by human activity, and that extreme measures are required
immediately to prevent a global catastrophe.Their motto
seems to be “Scientists Agree!” On the other side is a different group
of scientists, politicians and a few journalists who agree that there
has been recent warming of the planet, but who are not convinced that
it constitutes a crisis, that human activity is the only cause, or that
the remedies that have been proposed will be much help.Their motto might be “Not So Fast.” As an example of the severity of this split, let’s consider two recent books: In The Discovery of Global Warming
(2003), Spencer R. Weart, director of the Center for History of Physics
of the American Institute of Physics, traces the study of climate
change from research done as early as 1859 to the present.Weart clearly leans in the “Scientists Agree” direction, and his book is an excellent study of how that agreement came about.In his conclusion, he writes:
Of course climate science is full of uncertainties, and nobody claims to know exactly what the climate will do.That
very uncertainty is part of what, I am confident, is known beyond
doubt: our planet’s climate can change, tremendously and unpredictably.Beyond that we can conclude with the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations.] that it is very likely (his italics) that significant global warming is coming in our lifetimes.This surely bringsa likelihood of harm, widespread and grave (my italics).Those
who contest these facts are either ignorant or so committed to their
viewpoint that they will seize on any excuse to deny the danger.
But in a fascinating and well-documented book, Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media
(2004), Patrick J. Michaels, research professor of environmental
sciences at the University of Virginia, piles up chapter after chapter
of examples of exaggerations and distortions made by scientists
regarding global warming.He writes: “When it comes to climate change, there’s a culture of distortion out there.But it shouldn’t surprise you.Its development was logical, predictable, and inevitable.”He
points out that there is little grant money or possibility of tenure
for scientists who go against the prevailing paradigm of disaster.
agrees that the earth is warming, and that much of the warming is
caused by increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but he is not
convinced that the consequences are all bad. (“Not so Fast!”)For example, a modest increase in temperature could be economically beneficial, rather than resulting in disaster.And,
contrary to some reports, melting of the ice at the North Pole will not
raise the level of the oceans because “the North Polar icecap is a
floating mass, and melting that will have absolutely no effect on sea
level; a glass of ice water does not rise when the cubes have melted.”
point to all this is that if you based your global warming documentary
solely on the expert testimony of either one of these scientists – and
his like-minded colleagues – you would have less than the full story. That’s the flaw in An Inconvenient Truth,
directed by Davis Guggenheim, which shows former Vice President Al Gore
trying to raise the consciousness of the world about global warming,
one audience at a time.Taken as a performance
documentary, the film accurately portrays what are clearly Gore’s
beliefs, as presented in what can only be called a sermon – he did
attend Vanderbilt University Divinity School for a year – about an
impending planetary crisis.This may be the best look we’ve ever had at the man and his convictions.He seems sincere.He seems well informed.And he often makes an emotional appeal straight from the heart.The deaths of his son and his sister are shown as events that motivated him to try to do more to help the world. But
taken as a documentary about global warming, it is not only totally
one-sided, but it also lacks the sort of scientific documentation you’d
hope to see in a film about a serious geophysical problem.Voices
from the other side are dismissed as misinformed skeptics or as the
stooges of corporations with an economic interest in discrediting
global warming.Not once does Gore address any of the
questions or comments from serious scientists who may not be in
complete agreement with his position. And, as he has so often done before, he damages his own credibility through exaggeration.Just one example:Painting
a picture of environmental damnation, he tells us if either the
Greenland glacier or the ice shelf in West Antarctica were to melt
completely – or if half of each should melt – then the level of the
oceans would rise by twenty feet. He then shows us what the resulting
flooding would do to the coast of Florida and the island of Manhattan.But,
having previously scared us with stories of past abrupt geophysical
changes that, he says, occurred in anywhere from a few days to as
little as ten years, he somehow fails to mention exactly how long it
might take for the ocean level to rise by twenty feet. We’re left
believing if we don’t turn out the lights and buy a hybrid car right
now Florida’s a goner.
Actually, it turns Gore’s statement about sea level rise is probably true.That is, if glacier melting of the magnitude he describes were to happen, the rise in ocean level would be on the order of twenty feet.But it’s not the whole truth, because the time line is way out of whack. Climatologists
say it won’t happen the day after tomorrow (as in the film by the same
name), but in anywhere from one thousand to five thousand years – if it
happens at all.And even the IPCC, the leading advocate of
the potential disasters of global warming, only predicts a rise in the
level of the oceans over the next hundred years in a range from just four to less than thirty inches.This is never mentioned in the film.
Work Both Sides of the Street
It is crucial that a documentarian not limit his or her interviews to those who line up on only one side of an issue.Not only does this expose our biases, it walls us off from learning anything from those who don’t necessarily share our views.
What are our biases?Many of us, unless we are overtly political, believe we don’t have any.We like to think we’re in the center, or at least where the center ought to be.We think of those we agree with as centrists like us, and those with whom we disagree as -wingers of the left or right. Here’s the fastest way to find out where in the political spectrum you actually stand.Take the World’s Smallest Political Quiz at:
In an article about this quiz, The Washington Post,
June 17, 2001, wrote, “The quiz has gained respect as a valid measure
of a person’s political leanings; (during the 2000 election year)
Rasmussen Research used the quiz in a poll about how likely voters
viewed themselves.”(In the interest of full disclosure,
every time I have taken the test I have scored Libertarian, which means
I favor both economic freedom and freedom of behavior.Or to put it another way, I think the government should stay out of our lives as much as possible.)
you know what your leanings are, you can take care to include those who
lean the other way in your research and your filming.
Be careful about your sources.Try to avoid those that polarize your viewers.When I was working on the sponsored documentary Beyond Division: Reuniting the Republic of Cyprus, our contact in the embassy of the Republic of Cyprus gave us a list of political figures we might interview.Most were Democrats, since this was the final year of the Clinton administration.Included
were Senator Edward Kennedy and Senator Barbara Boxer, both of whom,
I’m sure, had positive things to say about the Republic of Cyprus.
We were making a film in an election year that would not be released until after a new administration took office.Since
there was a statistically even chance that the new administration would
be Republican, it did not make sense to me to use two highly partisan
figures who would automatically alienate Republican viewers.No
matter what Senators Kennedy or Boxer might say, their mere presence
would polarize a film meant to inform the American people and U.S.
government officials of the plight of Cyprus.
(If you don’t understand why this is so, you really need to take the World’s Smallest Political Quiz.)
who are not knowledgeable about the subject matter of their
documentaries are at the mercy of those who might want to manipulate
them.This is a growing problem as more and more
documentaries are being made, and the documentarians making them come
from the fields of communication (filmmaking or journalism for example)
but lack a background in history, economics, political science,
anthropology, sociology, physics, biology, or whatever might pertain to
the content of the films they are doing.
you won’t know whether a person you’re interviewing is telling you the
truth, or if the evidence you’re being urged to film is relevant,
you’re not ready to make the documentary.You need to read, study, ask questions, and reflect on what you’re learning in order to become knowledgeable about the topic.If
it’s so esoteric that it requires a specialist’s knowledge, then you
need to attach a specialist you can trust to your documentary unit.Someone,
if possible, who can explain the positions of various factions involved
in whatever you are documenting in such a way that he or she does not
seem to be favoring any specific position.Someone, if possible, who is as open-minded as you should be about the outcome.
ignorance is one good reason for staking out an area of interest that
you would like to make films about and becoming an expert on it.
we have seen, there are filmmakers willing to use the form of the
documentary without regard for the truth in order to present their own
one-sided, biased, or partisan views.When people calling themselves documentarians believe their mission is more important than the truth, we all suffer.
those four newspapers I work my way through each morning, it is
understood that there is a distinct separation between what should be
considered factual reporting and what should be considered personal
opinion.Reporting runs in the main news pages and is expected to be both truthful and, as far as possible, unbiased.Opinion
pieces are found close to the newspaper’s editorials and, while they
certainly should contain factual information, it is there to bolster
the views and opinions of their authors.
occur when readers — or television viewers or radio listeners —
perceive that a bias that rightly belongs in an opinion piece has crept
into a news story.It happens more often than most
journalists like to admit, which may be one reason the approval rating
for journalists in public opinion polls is about the same as for
politicians.It is also happening in documentary.
I thought that Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989) was a brilliant example of documentary as personal essay.Yes,
it was sometimes over the top, and no, getting an interview with
General Motors CEO Roger Smith was not going to make much of a
difference to the fate of Flint, Michigan.But this was clearly personal commentary starting with the word Me in the title. But it’s also worth noting that Moore’s trip down the slippery slope began here.As Hal Hinson wrote in The Washington Post, January 12, 1990:
I first saw the film, it struck me as the most impressively articulated
response to the Reagan era I’d seen. Since then it has come out that
Moore has — either intentionally or through lack of skill — fuzzied the
chronology of events, creating the impression that the plant closings
and layoffs took place all at once, around 1986 and ’87, instead of
over a period of more than a decade. In other instances too, Moore may
have fallen short of factual accuracy.
Though this doesn’t invalidate his political points, it does cast them in a more dubious light — and Moore along with them.
When Moore has been attacked for similar inaccuracies, and a lack of integrity, in Bowling for Columbine (even the title is based on a false assumption) and Fahrenheit 9/11,
there have been those who defended these films as personal essays, and
who argued that essays and opinion have a proper place within the
I agree that there is room within the documentary big tent for personal
films of essay and opinion, I don’t agree that calling a documentary a
personal essay is a license to lie or cheat, either overtly or by
implication.Information presented as factual should be accurate and complete.Editing of sound bites should never change their meaning.
I write this, Michael Moore is still a large presence in the world of
independent filmmaking, whether one regards his work as documentary,
personal essay, or docuganda.By the time you read this, it is entirely possible that he will have fallen out of the public consciousness.
But the damage to films called documentary has already been done. In
a recent newspaper article, the writer, after citing certain facts
pertaining to his story, said he couldn’t be sure how accurate they
were, as they had come from a documentary.
Three rebuttal films to Fahrenheit 9/11 have been produced:
Michael Moore Hates America, directed by Michael Wilson
Fahrenhype 9/11, directed by Alan Peterson
Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain. . . Begins to Die, directed by Kevin Knoblock
these are also partisan attack films, but they have the virtue that
their purpose is to point out the errors, inaccuracies, false
implications, and outright falsehoods in Moore’s film.And they do so with a much more rigorous documentation than Moore has ever applied to his own work.Just one example is the story of Sgt. Peter Damon, which you’ll read about in the next chapter. Online, numerous websites assay the truthfulness and importance of Moore’s work.Many of these, as you can imagine, are obviously conservative and clearly opposed to Michael Moore.These tend to document alleged distortions, false implications, and untruths in his work.You can survey the pros and cons fairly quickly by looking up the entry for Michael Moore in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Moore).
But it is not only the political right that takes exception to Moore’s work.On
the website of the Democratic Leadership Council, which thinks of
itself as center left, I found this statement about Michael Moore by Peter Ross Range, the editor of Blueprint magazine, which is published by the DLC.In an article entitled “Michael Moore’s Truth Problem,” a review of Moore’s book, Dude, Where’s My Country?, Range wrote:
Michael Moore a courageous political documentarist who unmasks the
chicanery all around us — or just a charlatan in a clown suit? Is he an
entertainment genius or a dangerous ideologue? The answer, of course,
is all of the above. The problem is that you never know which of the
four is doing the talking in Moore’s movies and books. The end result
is that the writer-filmmaker spreads a fog of misbegotten notions about
America, politics, business, and international affairs among his
youthful, left-leaning following at home and, indeed, around the world.
Uninformed readers and viewers tend to believe everything he says.
And when the truth comes out, as it always does, will the disenchanted blame the messenger?Or the medium?
are questions twenty-first-century documentarians should be grappling
with, because the strength of the documentary genre has always been its
grounding in truth.Take that away and you have The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live — commentary without corroboration.
A documentary can’t just be about what everyone knows.If everyone knows global warming is a problem, there’s no need to make a film saying so.But
if everyone doesn’t know this — or doesn’t believe it, or believes the
planet is getting warmer, but isn’t sure what’s causing it — then a
documentary on the subject needs to be accurate, truthful, and complete.First, because it’s the right thing to do.And second, because, today, you can’t get away with anything.
Whatever your topic, if you manipulate the facts, use biased sources, draw false conclusions, or lie, you’ll be found out.The
bigger the splash you make, the better the chance that someone will be
looking into the facts you have presented and checking the credentials
of your sources.The more important the topic, the more likely it is that the other side will come back in rebuttal.
And here’s the scary thing:
Even when you do everything right and tell the truth as you know it, if
your topic is at all controversial, the other side will attack your
that pictures can be altered so easily that an audience can’t
immediately tell that it has been done, and advocates and propagandists
have been shown to be willing to present unreliable or altered
information as if it were the truth, it will become both harder and
more important to be able to prove the validity of what is being shown.The solution, I think, will be part technology and part personal integrity.One without the other won’t work.
must seek the truth, be able to recognize it when they find it, and
have the skill and integrity to present it to an audience.New technology makes it possible to embed context interactively in a documentary.DVDs of a documentary have the capacity to carry complete interviews, not just the sound bites used in the film.Or
they could store all the footage that was shot of an activity or
behavior, so that a viewer wanting to know more could click on an icon
and see everything the documentarian had to work with.
When you can do that, you completely change the producing and viewing equation.If
propagandists use the documentary form without embracing the truth
ethic, then it may become necessary for the truth tellers to make everything available to their audiences, as a way to show they aren’t cheating.For example, all of the raw footage could be posted on the documentarian’s website.
that were to happen, propagandists who take sound bites out of context
and edit them into sequences where they don’t belong would have a
harder time making their case with the audience.And those who refuse to make everything available would automatically become suspect.