The unreality of so-called reality television is by now legendary.
But Heidi and Spencer, the people who foisted them upon the public, less betrayed the legacy of documentary filmmaking, as they did take it to its logical conclusion.
The Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, from 1978, won the Academy Award for best documentary, and it has been highly-praised down the years. It shows the contrasting fates of two California pet cemeteries. One scene in particular caught my attention, as an example of the fictionalizing that goes into documentary filmmaking.
The owner of one of the pet cemeteries is shown at grave-side with a couple who have recently lost their dog (image below). At first all three are presented in a wider shot, but when the owner removes a piece of paper from his pocket to read a few words of remembrance, the frame cuts to over his shoulder. By necessity, then, this required the dismantling and restaging of the camera, a process that would take at least several minutes to accomplish. Meanwhile, the couple who were laying their pet to rest, would’ve had to pause their grief, as it were, and then restart it when the cameras were ready to roll again. It is inevitable, thus, that some form of performance or acting must have been introduced into the “real” scene.
Morris seems to otherwise manipulate the photoplay more cunningly through editing. At one point the elder son of the owner is interviewed, he apparently just having rejoined the family business after starting a career and marrying elsewhere. He describes how is hard the job of selling graveyard space for animals - and does so at least one too many times not to be laughed at. But I think the man’s apparent dwelling on this point, is an artefact either of skilful editing or prompting by the unseen interviewer (presumably, Morris himself). A chief strength of Morris as a filmmaker, has not to do directly with the mechanics of the craft itself.
It is his ability to get his subjects to relax, forget they are being filmed, and thus reveal things they wouldn’t otherwise. For example, interviews with the founder of the bankrupt pet-cemetery owner, are inter-cut with footage of the head of an animal-rendering plant, where euthanised pets are taken for to have their remains turned into other products. It isn’t entirely clear what is the link between the two men, other than their contrasting uses for dead pets. But at one point, the rendering man states that his company has “a running deal” with the local veterinarians to bring deceased animals to the plant. He goes on advise, however, that this is “just between us”, as though what he says isn’t being filmed. Morris shares this ability to put his subjects at ease with Ken Burns. In fact, Errol Morris has gone a step further and invented a camera device which allows those he interviews to be looking directly at him, whilst also seeming to look right into the lens (and thus, the viewer) when they speak.
This is in evidence in Morris’ later documentary, the Thin Blue Line, which was key in getting a wrongly-convicted man released from death-row in Texas (the exonerated man, Randall Adams, later sued Morris). A key point is when the detectives responsible for railing Adams to the death house, also openly admit that one of their own did a poor job of policing at the scene of the crime. Evidently, Morris gave no clue as where to his actual sympathies lay, and the detectives obliged by revealing lapses in the investigation.
Morris also uses re-enactments of the event in question, and its aftermath. He may well have thus become one of the first documentarians to introduce drama into non-fiction. This is commonplace now, but I’m certain these segments (in which actors portraying the principals in the investigation) are partly responsible for the film becoming a mainstream success (that is, for a documentary feature). The musical score of the Thin Blue Line, provided by the “new age” composer Philip Glass, establishes the appropriate emotional tone for what is occurring onscreen, just as in any scripted film.
Yet, what he presents in the re-enactments must be fictional: for they include the prosecution scenarios, as well as the version of events that Morris believes actually occurred. One of these cannot be true. In another re-enactment, the actor playing Adams is sitting in an interrogation room. As the actual Adams describes in voice-over what he claims happened to him, an actor playing a detective points his revolver at the suspect, to get him to sign a confession.
Certainly, no independent evidence supports this version of events. But their very depiction as true, lends power to Adams’ case.
Ross McElwee came to prominence in the 1980s with Sherman’s March, which was supposed to be a documentary tracing the devastation wreaked by U.S. Civil War General Tecumseh Sherman on wide areas of the Confederacy in the closing months of the conflict. However, it is instead largely a chronicle of McElwee’s search for love after being dumped by his girlfriend prior to filming.
The filmmaker apparently had a camera with him at all times, even in situations that seem inappropriate, such as going on a date (at one point McElwee’s former teacher upbraids him for using the film-camera as a means of dividing himself from the world). It’s all very entertaining enough, but I’ve wondered subsequently whether or not McElwee did in fact carefully retrace Sherman’s march through Georgia, but found the footage he shot about himself and the various women he courts, more interesting still.
A more recent film, Photographic Memory,from 2011, is initially about the filmmaker’s relationship with his nearly-grown son. Throwing aside any pretense by now that his films are about anything than himself, McElwee travels to France to hunt down an old flame, as well as the wedding photographer who hired the young American when the latter quit college and moved to Europe during the 1970s.
Neither relationship ended well, and McElwee claims to want answers to questions that have haunted him for years, as well as to regain some understanding of his own wayward youth to get through to his increasingly alienated son. If this journey is pleasant enough, I couldn’t help but to believe that the audience was being taken for a ride. The title of the film is ironic. The “photographic memory” that McElwee seems to refer to is how reminiscence is distorted by both traditional photography, and the newer digital imagery that is ubiquitous in the younger McElwee’s life.
During the film, McElwee is shown looking over the prints that the filmmaker had taken while living in France, but he claims too incredibly not to remember very much about any of them. More remarkably, McElwee the shutterbug seems to have taken only three pictures of his French paramour, named Maud, and just one or two of his former employer, Maurice.
He claims that, upon returning to France to make his documentary, his lodgings were located across a square from the film shop and studio in the Bretagne town where he'd stayed as a youth, but he simply had forgotten this.
Surely this couldn’t be true. But it was more interesting for McElwee to go with his camera and inquire with the locals as to where this Maurice the wedding photographer might be now (even more incredibly, McElwee claims not to have remembered either his or Maud’s surname). I think all of this forgetting on McElwee’s part is simply a way of making his film more interesting, and to make a philosophical point about the malleability of reminiscence.
Perhaps I am saying too much here. I don’t accuse either McElwee or Morris of being dishonest, in the sense that they present things as knowingly untrue. But what they and other documentary filmmakers definitely engage is fictionalization – the sort known to authors of what is called “literary fiction.” In contrast to “genre” novels, literature is supposed to be about things that, even if they didn’t happen as described, could well have occurred in the “real world”. And, very often novelists write about things that actually did happen, to themselves, or to others they know. In the same way, documentary filmmakers take “real-life” as their subject matter, but then very often depict things as they didn’t actually occur at all.