Skip to main content

Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, Spring 2011

By Tom White

What makes documentary such a wonderfully enlivening medium is the fact that it attracts makers from such a diverse array of disciplines--broadcast and print journalism, fiction film, still photography, radio, theater, painting, sculpture, psychology, medicine, law, etc. And these multifarious roots make for a dynamic art form, one whose very parameters vis à vis the pursuit of the truth are sometimes challenged, sometimes called into question by practitioners and viewers alike.

Take one of the most talked about docs of 2010: Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, which has garnered nearly 30 awards, prizes and nominations from critics, audiences and the filmmaking community alike, topped off most recently by an Academy Award nomination. Despite, or perhaps because of, the purported ambiguities in the film, viewers were more than willing to embrace it as a Banksy project, one that in this case takes the conventions of the documentary template and subverts them in a way, thereby contextualizing documentary as it ought to be contextualized--as an art form, subject to its own questions and its own boundary-pushing.

Over the past few months, such venturesome documentary showcases as DOC NYC, CPH: DOX and IDFA have explored the symbiotic synergy among artistic disciplines and genres, testing the definitions of the doc form and exploring its transmedia/multiplatform possibilities. So, amid this interdisciplinary flux and fluidity, we wrestle, in this issue, with a knotty theme that's been part of the conversation about the documentary aesthetic since the beginning of the art form: THE TRUTH.

Thanks to IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt, who proposed the theme a number of years ago in the wake of an issue we created on humor, we asked him to return the favor with a lead-off essay, in which he posits the dialectic between Essential Truth and Literary Truth. Joseph Jon Lanthier hones in re-enactments and re-creations, longtime conceits in the documentary form, focusing on how filmmakers like Alex Gibney (Client 9) and Clio Barnard (The Arbor) deploy these strategies in striking ways--using actors to perform the roles of subjects who had been interviewed on audiotape. This brand of docu-theater was taken a step further by Sam Green, who dubbed his remarkable Utopia in Four Movements a "performance documentary."  Sara Maria Vizcarrando explores this and other works in which documentary informs other art forms. But when The Truth is relative--when the covenant between artist and audience is breached and chicanery and fakery become the ends to the means--that's where jurisprudential reality steps in. Josh Slates looks at the slippery slope between real and unreal and the legal ramifications therein.

And who else to shed light on The Truth and the pursuit thereof than Werner Herzog, whose treatise on "Ecstatic Truth" has coursed through the ongoing discourse about this malleable form in which we all toil. Taylor Segrest talks to Herzog about what he discovered in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White