November 2007

The Ethics of Documentaries

by Jonathan Wallace

I always believed that documentaries were the "red-headed stepchildren" of the movie world, unwashed and unloved. Certainly the vast majority of them are not nearly as well made as fiction films. Even the most pedestrian drama has the potential for a bit of montage, a striking shot of clouds or a bird, or a nuanced moment where the quality of the acting exceeds the limitations of the script. Unfortunately, the standard for documentaries has always been stock footage, stock music, and talking heads, interspersed with a few judicious but trite reenactments or animations. Documentaries are a jobless Hollywood actor intoning, a sketch of a ship, a dotted line stretching from Spain to America on an antique map....

A few weeks ago, I attended a local film festival and had the opportunity to see four documentaries in two days. I watched one more on Netflix afterwards, and began to see that documentaries fall into several basic categories, each of which has different ethical implications. I found the ethical issues more interesting than I did the films themselves.

The first documentary I watched was "House of the Living", about a Jewish cemetery in Prague, Czechoslovakia. This was also the most prosaic and tired of all the films I saw: lots of drawings and photographs of uncertain provenance and authenticity. The film-maker, a man, had chosen to have as on-screen interlocutor a Czech woman, herself a filmmaker, whom the camera followed down the street Michael Moore-style. In one scene, she and a new bride arrived at the cemetery just at closing time, and pleaded to be let in, so that the bride could follow an old ritual of writing her wish on a piece of paper and sticking it on one of the memorials.The shot of the women pleading to be let in was shot from inside the cemetery, over the shoulder of the guard trying to turn them away. Had he allowed in the camera crew, then tried to reject their subjects? This obviously staged scene called the honesty of the rest of the film into serious question.

The next doc was "Soldiers of Conscience", about soldiers serving in Iraq who who seek conscientous objector status. This consisted mainly of interviews with several such soldiers about their beliefs, interspersed with other talking heads, particularly a West Point professor, pointing out that you can't run an army or defend the nation if each soldier can decide which wars to fight and which to avoid. (This is a fairly reasonable point.) I liked most of the soldiers, sympathized with their dilemma, and decided that each was fairly credible in denying that his motive was to avoid danger.

However, it left me wondering how a documentary ever gets to the truth. When you point a camera at people and ask them to account for themselves, you get a lot of bragging and complaining, the two basic modes of human conversation. Everyone is a hero in his own mind, nobody will admit to a fault, and everything that goes wrong must be laid at someone else's door. Because documentarians are aware of this, they tend to seek the "he said/she said" format in which every assertion must be balanced by its counter-assertion until the audience becomes exhausted. The end result is a sort of a grab bag; it may observe the barest structure of "fair and balanced" but commits the greater sin of pretending not to have a point of view. This last objection applies to newspaper journalism and nonfiction books as well. To be human is to have a point of view. Objectivity in any writing or work of film is generally a crock.

Whenever you aim a camera at a person you are influencing the result as surely as an anthropologist affects the behavior of the culture he is observing. (In a fiction film, that's the point of the exercise, why its called "directing"). I think, counter-intuitively, that truth as an absolute is more likely to be found in fiction films than documentaries. Fiction films may be like stopped clocks, which are right twice a day; but documentaries are like clocks which are always ten minutes or more off the correct time.

Of ten fiction films about a historical event, one may represent what really happened, if only by accident. Not a single documentary will. If it represents an event from living memory, its pursuit of "fairness" will lead to the inclusion of people with an agenda in denying the event happened the way it really did (or that it happened at all). And if its about an event from much earlier in history, there is a good chance that we don't have sufficient information to know what really occurred (or the cultural understanding of the past to understand why it did).

The third documentary was "Steal a Pencil for Me", about a couple who met and fell in love in a German show camp in Holland (a concentration camp in which the inmates were allowed to live a fairly well-nourished lifestyle, with cultural opportunities, so the Nazis could represent to the world that the imprisoned Jews were well-treated.)

This film made me quite uncomfortable. Since every little variation is grist for the mill of the Holocaust deniers, we have a heightened responsibility to be careful when making statements about concentration camps. A mistake or falsehood about the life of George Washingto doesn't have nearly the consequences of a mistake or lie about the camps. The couple at the center of this film are alive, and much of the movie consisted of interviews with them. The woman claimed to have taken her hairbrush and some jewelry with her when deported from the show camp to Bergen Belsen, a famously lethal work camp, and to have managed to continue getting her hair cut in a page boy. Just ahead of the Russian liberation of the camps, she said she was put on a train Westwards, while her lover was sent East. Most importantly, this couple claimed to have kept all their letters to each other through all their adventures; they published them in a book in 2000, on which this film is based.

Of course, anyone criticizing a documentary of this sort is quickly accused of anti-semitism or holocaust denial himself. But a film which filters a historical event--especially this one--through a potentially flawed or self interested first person account, is greatly at risk of falsehood or error, even with the best intentions. I remember Primo Levi's judgment that the people who survived the camp were not saints. The most interesting moment of this movie was when the man acknowledged that he had declined to share bread in the camp with a dying sister. If he would admit such a horrible thing, I thought perhaps he wouldn't easily lie about lesser matters. But I still feel uncomfortable with the thought that someone carried scores of personal letters through Bergen Belsen, where inmates were forced to break stone, and then through the chaotic liberation afterwards. I wondered if the filmmaker had seen the originals of those letters--they are never shown, just re-enacted, on screen; we see a fountain pen forming the words in an old-fashioned handwriting.

A title at the end said that all the film from the show camp was authentic. That led to the question, what other footage, of the work camp, or of life in Holland, was not authentic? Certainly some shots of a resistance hero being arrested by storm troopers was lit, filmed and acted like an excerpt from an old fiction film.

The fourth and most disturbing documentary was entitled "To Die in Jerusalem". This began with the famous Newsweek cover form some years ago, of two teenage girls who look remarkably alike: a Palestinian suicide bomber and the Israeli girl she killed. The first moral issue this documentary faces is that of "moral equivalency"; the placement implies that both girls are victims,when in reality, one murdered the other.

It was interesting to see that when this documentary was done, people in the audience on both sides of the issue were offended. Many felt that the film gave too much credence to the Palestinian side, while I felt that the movie showed absolutely no Israeli self-awareness about the realities of occupation. The Israeli mother of the murdered girl assumes that the other parents' home in a Palestinian camp will be bulldozed by the authorities, and she seems to think it should be--an outcome which would be shocking and reprehensible under the US constitution, because the Palestinian parents did not encourage or arm their daughter or have any foreknowledge of her acts.

The Israeli filmmaker, when accused of bias, pointed out credibly that she just pointed a camera at the two moms and let them talk. The Israeli mom concentrated more on personal loss and grief, while the Palestinian mom was more political- polemical.

The biggest problem I had was that the core of the doc was about a staged event--the filmmaker's quest to get the two women to meet and talk in person. It was impossible to tell whether this was a goal the Israeli mom would have pursued without the camera's encouragement. I also wondered whether the Palestinian mother, if she felt compassion for the Israeli girl or shame for her own daughter's action, would have felt the least bit free to say so to an Israeli camera. In the end the in person meeting does not come off, because the palestinians aren't permitted to leave the camp and the Israeli woman doesn't feel safe going there. So the documentary is about the failure of a staged media event. It is otherwise not enlightening, because both women say about what you would expect them to with a camera stuck in their faces. A fiction film, about the private things the two moms might find to say to one another on a park bench with no-one listening, might have presented a more truthful or at least interesting experience.

A day or so ago I watched "Crumb" on Netflix' "Watch Now" service, a narcissistic love fest about a highly talented countercultural artist of the sixties and seventies who also happens to be a fairly repellent individual. He was the main talking head, endlessly regaling us with stories during the film's two hour duration. We learned that one of his mentally ill brothers, Charles, has never had sex, still lives with their mom, used to think about stabbing Robert Crumb the artist, etc. Dad was constipated, mom is a flake, and so on, world without end, amen. Charles agreed to be interviewed, as did their mother and another brother (two sisters declined and are barely mentioned). A title at the end informs us that Charles killed himself after filming was complete. Had he seen rushes? Did journalists call him for comments on some of Robert's revelations about him, made to the camera out of Charles' presence? Putting a camera in the face of a mentally ill recluse on medication seems like a grotesque act even before you factor in R. Crumb's casual cruelty to everyone around him. I had the impression that the documentary may have ultimately killed Charles, and therefore that the most interesting story--about the ethics of documentary making--is only hinted at, never confronted, in the film.

What about Michael Moore, you say? He's a funny guy. He doesn't pretend to be "fair and balanced"; his films are unashamed polemics, mostly very clever and effective ones. But there is no way in a 90 minute documentary to communicate anything but the most superficial understanding of topics as complex as gun control, what happened on 9/11, or health care. Go read a book.