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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

question of the day: Why are we no longer able to trust that a documentary is authentic?

Catfish hasn’t even opened yet — though it has played to numerous festival and preview audiences — and already the filmmakers are having to defend its authenticity. Codirector Henry Joost tells MTV News:

It is a documentary in that it’s something that actually happened and we filmed it and none of it is staged or fake. To us, we had no idea people were going to have that reaction until Sundance, and after the first screening, [“Super Size Me” director/star] Morgan Spurlock went up to somebody on our team and went, “That is the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen,” and we were like, “Really?” Because how do you react to that in our shoes? … It’s kind of strange, because to us, there’s no debate; that’s what happened. I think what people are reacting to a lot is, the film is edited. We can’t put out a 250-hour movie, so we’re making decisions and streamlining the narrative and presenting what we feel is the clearest representation of what happened, but it’s real, and there’s nothing disingenuous about it…. [W]e’re not that creative.

Meanwhile, as I’m Still Here debuts at the Venice Film Festival, director Casey Affleck is on the defensive: speculation that his documentary about Joaquin Phoenix is a put-on has been rampant for months, and now, with the film finally being seen by audiences, it has exploded. From the Guardian:

Is it an authentic, warts-and-all documentary about a tortured artist who has fallen out of love with his chosen profession? Or is it a shameless stunt, perpetrated by a pair of Hollywood playboys with too much time and money on their hands? Last night the crowds thronged the Venice red carpet to catch the world premiere of I’m Still Here, a film that features the Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix and is directed by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. It’s safe to say they went home none the wiser.

Affleck insisted the film was strictly on the level. “There’s no hoax,” he told reporters. “The idea of a hoax makes me think of [US TV series] Candid Camera and that never entered my consciousness.” Affleck was, however, more coy when quizzed on the specifics of several key scenes within the film. “I can understand why this movie can be confusing in terms of what’s real and what’s not,” he admitted. “But I’m reluctant to speak about certain scenes because that would influence people’s interpretation of the film. I sincerely don’t want to do that.”

Why are we no longer able to trust that a documentary is authentic?

Of course, it doesn’t help that we have been bombarded lately with avowedly fictional films aping the documentary form: District 9, The Fourth Kind, Paranormal Activity, the current The Last Exorcism. But surely it’s more than that: Could it be an indication of the collapse of trust in journalism? If we know the mainstream media is slanting reality or simply not presenting us with truly important things we need to know, if we know that serious journalism has been supplanted by something we could call news-etainment, is it a stretch to look at an engaging and narratively complete documentary and that suspect that it might be too perfect to be true (Anvil! The Story of Anvil, anyone?). It seems a shame that excellent work on the part of bona fide documentarians could be suspect merely because their work is so excellent. But it’s where we are.

It won’t help the situation if I’m Still Here and/or Catfish actually turn out to be fake.

I find it very disconcerting, this sense of reality being unsteady beneath my feet. I don’t mind a fake documentary, as long as it’s upfront about being fake — it’s the not knowing, and the idea that we shouldn’t believe filmmakers who tell us their documentaries are actually documentaries, that I find deeply uncomfortable. The Christopher Guest brand of mockumentary — This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind — in which the fake subject is what’s being mocked, seems to be dead. Now it seems we the audience is being mocked, if not by fake documetarians but by a zeitgeist that becoming unable — or willing — to distinguish between reality and fiction.

Am I alone in this? What’s happening to us?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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