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Where the Truth Lies—Or Not

By Rachel Kamerman

Arguments about truth in documentary filmmaking—how "real" a film is or isn't—are inherent to the form, part of its DNA. "Reality" is an eternal question (Platonic ideal?) in an art form that demands both honesty and manipulation: honesty through its humanity and manipulation through its craft. But are a film's insights and revelations about the human condition any less untrue as a result of its craft?

There's the maxim in moviemaking that "every cut is a lie," therefore documentary filmmaking is essentially a paradox: an unspooling of truth built on a careful pyramid of intricate lies. Or is it?

The irony is that as the craft of the documentary form has become more visible, with filmmakers applying a full range of cinematic tools, the questions of truth or untruth have rung more loudly and with more persistence. From Catfish to Exit Through the Gift Shop, and extending all the way to hybrid provocations like Bruno and I'm Still Here, these questions—sometimes accusations—of truth or lies have consumed and confounded documentary circles in the last several years. It's almost like a seesaw, and "Craft" is the fat kid that hopped on that wooden plank in the playground, only to leave Truth hanging in the air.

Likewise, truth itself is the pearl in the oyster that filmmakers are always searching to retrieve and hold up to the world: as a containable marker of the human condition, as proof of their subject's merit and as validation for their own pursuits.

I myself have participated on documentary panels where filmmakers argued—prompted by audience questions—about whether editing a subject's dialogue to eliminate pauses, coughs, stammers and lost trains of thought constituted a betrayal of truth. And I've scratched my head thinking, "If I can't discern information or extract emotion from your filmmaking because I'm distracted or bored by your subject's rambling, what is the point of your attempt to preserve this truth at the expense of a far greater one?"

Folks, if the choice is between honest diction or emotional revelation, I suggest you pick the latter. Which brings me to my litmus test:

Essential Truth vs. Literal Truth

Literal Truth: Bob went to the market.

Essential Truth: Bob went to the 7-11 at midnight for a six-pack because he's an alcoholic.

Both may be true statements, but one is basic and without insight or analysis, while the other is more insightful due to its analysis. Or, some would say, insightful because of its judgments...but aren't "insights" and "judgments" often one and the same, defined only by the eye of the judge and juror? And who in the documentary field would deny their true callings as amateur psychologists? Isn't that why we're all here—to judge?

Thus, I believe it can (and should) be argued, that the craft of documentary filmmaking—good filmmaking—is to provide the analysis needed to reveal human insights, the essential truths. A movie composed of literal truths would be 100 percent true in the strictest sense, but also quite possibly the most bereft of real insight, while attaining, perhaps, complete unwatchability in its dogged pursuit of honesty.

To insist on literal truth at every turn in a documentary would rob a filmmaker of his or her tools to contextualize information and character. Simple omission—filtering the flow of human information to extract the minerals of a story's Essential Truth—is invaluable. I've yet to see a documentary that deeply moved me, yet left me concerned that information was left out of its telling. I would not have enjoyed The King of Kong any less had director Seth Gordon included its characters' complete family lineages or detailed medical histories (Chapter Twelve: "Billy's Cousin's Hernia"). 

Conversely, when I sometimes watch biographical docs, I think, "This piece of information may make your film more comprehensive or more complete, but can you show me only what I need to know to understand or appreciate your subject and your film's themes? Can you step away from the material for one moment to explain to me, in short...Who Fucking Cares?"

This is not to say that filmmakers should ignore literal truths. But there are times when panning for the gold of essential truth requires cinematic arts to magnify the nuggets:  cross-cutting, repetition, juxtaposition, irony. Life doesn't always come with reaction shots. Or cutaways. Or context for third-party consumption. However, movies do, and these elements all amplify your Essential Truth.

 "Simple" truth is just that: simple. The documentary filmmaker in his or her element is still a storyteller, albeit one who deals in the real. But when has anyone ever regaled a crowd with a true story enjoyed merely for its precise and wholly accurate recollection of events? Perhaps only in Ricky Gervais' film titled...The Invention of Lying.

Audiences walk away from documentaries remembering the things that made them cry, made them laugh, made them think, made them relate. They do not walk away admiring the integrity of the process. In fact, they don't even think your process—-and probably shouldn't—that is, unless the essential truths themselves are in question. If they're thinking at all about process, they're not enjoying the sausage enough to forget about how it's made.

When Does Craft Outweigh Truth?

The cries against the likes of Catfish and its ilk came from many in the documentary community saying they didn't believe the constructed reality of the film. In some cases, they felt it was "too good" to be true. 

Interestingly enough, I didn't hear this critique from general audiences. They either found the film captivating or they didn't. Their critique was more along the lines of "Yeah, so what? Who isn't lying on Facebook?" rather than a questioning of the filmmakers' integrity.

What I personally extract from the doc community's critique of Catfish are the voices of filmmakers who know all-too-well how the sausage is made, looking at this particular work and seeing too much visible craft. Too much omission to deny. And they're unwilling to go along for the ride, the ride that every documentary would like to take you on. To those detractors, regarding this specific film, I say,Your loss. But their critique points toward a larger, and more important issue: Filmmakers should be mindful of the fact that the cognitive or emotional leaps they require their audiences to take may allow the seams of their constructs to show.

Early in Howard Stern's autobiographical film, Private Parts, when Stern plays himself as a Boston University student, clearly 20 years too late, he looks directly into camera and says (I'm paraphrasing), "Sometimes you just gotta suspend disbelief." (Sidenote: I think it's good to bring lowbrow cultural references into a highminded debate. Stay with me).  Unfortunately, with a sophisticated audience who understands the documentary craft—who knows, consciously, that every cut may be, to some extent, a lie—there's a breaking point where they may not be able to suspend order to believe wholeheartedly. When the lights go down, let's face it: We all want to believe.

"We know that you're going for essential truth," the sophisticates seem to be saying, "And we're willing to forego some literal truth to get there.  Well...some of us are, anyway. But don't let us question the motivation of your cinematic manipulations—or we will fail to believe your essential truth entirely.  We may even become quite pissed off."  Films that breach this tacit agreement with their audience have a problem—and it's a motivation problem. It's not even what's on screen anymore, it's the question of what's behind what's onscreen: the man peeking out from the curtain. But dammit, get that man out of sight—and don't let me contemplate his machinations!

When they question your essential truth, you're in trouble. As George Burns used to say, "Sincerity's everything. And if you can fake that, you've got it made."


Eddie Schmidt is the Board President of IDA, and an Academy Award-nominated essential truth-teller who has produced the documentaries Twist of Faith, This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Troubadours, among others.