There is an exchange in the 1998 film, Smoke Signals, written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, in which the protagonist, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, asks his new friend, Suzy Song, to tell him a story. Suzy replies, “do you want the truth or do you want lies.” With a giant grin plastering his face, Thomas replies, “I want both.” I like to recount this anecdote in the classes I teach on storytelling, even in classes on documentary. I think why the protagonist might be grinning so broadly is because, over everything, he desires a good story. He knows that truth and lies are both important ingredients in the mix.
I am frequently frustrated by the distinction in which fiction films are called narratives but documentaries are not. It implies that fiction films are stories while documentaries are some sort of illustrated lecture. I try to dispel this notion in my documentary classes and stress that documentary is primarily a form of storytelling and should contain all the elements of any good story or, for that matter, any good fiction film: captivating characters, conflict, rising tension, unexpected turns, a climax, a resolution and a compelling theme. As my students soon learn, including these elements and creating these structures within documentary form is much more challenging than creating them in fiction. But what about this recipe of truth and lies that Thomas Builds-the-Fire desires in his stories? Does it hold true for documentary, as well? Aren’t documentaries, by their very nature, truthful? And if they aren’t, shouldn’t they be?
The topics of truth and objectivity are hotly debated among documentary filmmakers and film scholars. In the film, Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, directed by Pepita Ferrari, Werner Herzog derides factual truth, stating that all the names and numbers in any given phone book are all facts and are true, but they hold no significant meaning in and of themselves. Errol Morris counters that there is absolute truth and that the facts count. He goes on to explain that there is only one person who pulled the trigger and killed the policeman in his documentary, The Thin Blue Line. It was Morris’ duty to figure out the facts and reveal the truth about who that killer truly was, especially since a wrongly convicted, innocent man’s life was on the line on death row.
Though their opinions differ greatly, I think both are right, especially when considering the types of films each are making. Personally, I find myself walking a fine line between the two perspectives in my own documentary practice. I’m willing to bend the facts if it makes a better story but not so much that the truth becomes distorted or false associations are created. For example, I would never edit in a shot of someone laughing in reaction to someone, when in reality they were scowling. On the other hand, though, I might deviate from the factual chronology as I recorded it and insert one scene before another when in actuality it occurred after, if it makes the structure of the documentary more sound or helps the flow of rising and falling tension within the story. It may be a deviation from factual truth, but as long as it doesn’t create false linkages it has little bearing on the overall truth of the story.
In film school, I trained as a fiction director. I developed my love for documentary crewing on documentary films. I loved its immediacy, its freedom, its unpredictability, its chaos, and the improvisation it required. I recognized its potential for poetry and immersive storytelling. Like Thomas Builds-the-Fire, story turns me on, I believe strongly in its spiritual power, and I don’t mind some white lies in the mix as long as they are in service of the greater truth.
My sister, Kate, wrote in a previous blog that the story I tell is not the story she would have told, even if given the same footage to work with. She also mentions that all art falls short of the entire truth. She is right, of course, but I would add that human consciousness falls short of the whole truth. Certainly my parents, like any couple, would give different accounts of the successes and failures in their fifty-three year long marriage, as well different accounts as to the causes and repercussions of these successes and failures. This much is evident in the film.
But what if my mom could tell the whole story of her journey with cancer? Would it be the truth? Akira Kurosawa, in his famous film, Rashomon (1950), suggests that it might not be. In Rashomon, all of the characters’ versions of the truth are tainted by their own egos, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and the psychological impulse to revise their stories to fit their own needs (not to mention the fallibility of memory). They are incapable of being fully truthful when relaying their own stories, incapable of being fully truthful with themselves. While my mom was a pillar of wisdom to many of her friends and family, she was also human and as such was subject, like all of us, to her own flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. So, perhaps her story would be just that; another story, another version of the truth told to the best of her abilities. Would it be a truer story than mine? Perhaps. But it would still not be the whole truth.
So if all human perspective is tainted by subjectivity and objectivity is elusive if not impossible in documentary, where should documentary filmmakers draw the line? What responsibility do documentarians have to the truth? In my opinion, they have a great one. All great art chases the truth, tries to catch some corner of it and reveal it to the world. This, I believe, is the vital and spiritual function of art. At the same time, each artist’s journey to the truth is their own, formed and influenced by their own experiences, dispositions and discoveries. It is up for the audience to assess the merits of the truth that the artist presents and to utilize it and apply it to their own lives if they so choose.
Stage Four: A Love Story is a documentary, its medium is reality and it is, on the whole, true. But as the title implies, it is also a story. Its reality is structured and manipulated, certain things are emphasized while others are omitted. Its tensions and themes are constructed in the editing room. Its perspective and points of view are limited. However, the film is also a poem, a song, a dance, a dream, a rumination drenched in twilight. It is first and foremost a story and my hope is that the audience will get lost within it and perhaps, along the way, discover some nuggets of the truth, despite the little white lies and limitations of both the form and the human that made it.
- Benjamin Steger
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