“It’s All True” was the title of the documentary that Orson Welles came to film in Brazil in 1942. In one of the tragic episodes surrounding the production, the team recorded a reenactment of the arrival of jangadeiros in Rio de Janeiro, when a bad storm caused the boat to capsize. The lead fisherman of the royal voyage undertaken a few months earlier — and now portrayed in the “documentary” — has died. The irony of a subject who dies in the “documentary” reenactment of his own life is symptomatic.
This is because documentaries have always been associated with the idea of truth or reality. This is even suggested by the names of many festivals dedicated to the genre, starting with the first Brazilian event of its kind, created by Amir Labaki in 1996christened Welles’ failed film.
But is it all true even in documentary cinema?
The last controversy on the subject came with the fictional series “A Escada”, launched this yeardirected by Antonio Campos, which stages the events that gave rise to the documentary of the same title directed by the award-winning Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in 2004.
The French documentary, made “hot”, followed in the footsteps of Michael Peterson, an American whose wife, Kathleen, is found dead at the foot of the stairs of the house where they lived in the United States. The American series, in turn, portrays the family that was the victim of the tragedy, but also the characters involved with the making of the documentary (such as the director and the editor), and was accused of not having been faithful to the real facts of the filming.
Disrespect for the actual chronology, suggestion of the director’s use of artifices and the editor’s impartiality at the time of editing were some of the accusations made against Campos.
It is interesting that fiction is accused of manipulating reality when that is precisely the nature of fictional work.
The problem could perhaps be avoided with messages like the one in the series “Inventing Anna”, 2021, in which each episode began with the warning, always inventively inserted onto the screen, that “everything here is true, except for everything that has been invented”. It sounds like a low trick, but it’s still a good way of explaining the thing.
Another interesting example is “Fatal Attraction” from 1987the classic with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, which opens with a peculiar cartouche that informs that the film is inspired by real events, but adds: “Some events are combined or imagined for dramatic and interpretive purposes”.
The wording of the warning, however, suggests that there would be a limit to the manipulation of the facts on which the work is based, remaining faithful to the essential dramaturgical points of the narrative. In this logic, the series “A Escada” would have exceeded the limit by modifying the timeline, anticipating the courtship of the documentary editor with the widowed protagonist of the film to the moment when he edited the raw material, which did not occur.
This was the case with Swedish director Hogir Hirori, the subject of serious allegations of manipulation in his 2021 documentary “Sabaya”, which won the Sundance Film Festival. One New York Times report revealed, among other things, that the director had included in the film a reenactment made by an actress as if it were a real record, made live, of the real woman who stars in the story. There have been claims that documentary is an art form and not necessarily a journalistic product, which seems like an oversimplification of what is at stake.
It is clear that artifices in the filming (such as repeating scenes asking for more emotion) or the manipulation of the raw material in the montage can generate different reactions in the spectator, who starts from the premise that he is in front of a “virgin” material, not manipulated. For this reason, terms such as “docufiction” and “docudrama” emerged over the years as an attempt to differentiate, within this immense gray area, documentary films with different degrees of fidelity to reality.
However, wouldn’t it be naive to believe that the records of Lestrade’s film —or of any documentary — even if not manipulated in any way, would be real? It seems reasonable to suppose that, from the moment a camera is turned on with awareness of the filmed, there is some degree of representation.
This becomes increasingly problematic in contemporary documentary production, which has become increasingly structured, resembling very much the dramaturgical formulas of fiction, with hero, antagonist, conflict, climax, resolution — not to mention mystery, surprise and twists obtained. based on manipulating the chronology of real events.
Whether it’s right or wrong, I can’t say. I tend to agree with the words of George orwell: “In an age of deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” How nice it would be to see documentaries that dare to present reality without sugaring the pill, with dead times and inconsistencies inherent to life.
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