Pondering the meaning of ‘documentary’ in the Age of Irony
Having just again viewed the film “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” and read the various coverage pondering the question of whether it’s for real, there are some conclusions I have drawn.
Second, that the film is entertaining and points to some basic truths.
Third, that because of the success of this film, that we are going to see a wave of “documentaries” that dispense with fact when convenient.
Fourth, that all of the above are going to be something of a tipping point for documentaries as we have traditionally defined them.
“Exit,” by the British street artist called Banksy (apparently a pseudonym for Robert Banks), premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it was listed as a documentary but placed in the “Spotlight” competition rather than in either the U.S. or Word Documentary competitions, where filmmakers such as Sebastian Junger (with Tim Hetherington) and Laura Poitras had traveled far and risked personal safety to report on the War in Afghanistan and Al Queda, respectively. No one at Sundance apparently ran a fact check, or it they did worried about that in listing “Exit” as a doc.
The film focuses on a man named Thierry Guetta, whom the New York Times says “seems to exist.” But the story told about Guetta is, even in the Google age, a blank. Searches through news databases show nothing before 2009, and only in conjunction with the film. A Wikipedia page on Guetta has numerous challenges for factual accuracy, as well as a challenge that the entry “reads like an advertisement.” He may be real, but that doesn’t make the story real.
Guetta, in the film, is entertaining, but in the “truth in stranger than fiction” manner. What if it’s not the truth?
There’s always been a sub-genre of film generally called the “mockumentary.” It’s been a form that works because it allows the filmmaker to package a story with a thread of verisimilitude, and it also allows the film to be made very cheaply. “This is Spinal Tap” had fun with the form, and “The Blair Witch Project” had a success in the late 1990s using the doc form as a way of using low-cost video footage. But these films have always been clearly fictional.
The question may be, has Sundance, through “Exit,” opened a can of worms in which the word “documentary” no longer clearly defines the film as being fully factual?
There is sure to be a wave of films coming on the heels of “Exit” in which younger filmmakers use the conventions of documentary to tell a story. But in that, will the term “documentary” come to not necessarily be one that speaks of truth, but only of the conventions of the documentary style – shot on video, employing sit-down interviews of subjects, using apparent B-roll (often rough and noisy, as in the Banksy film), overlayed with a narrator’s voice?
One might wonder if in future Sundance competition, or other film festivals, there would be “nonfiction documentary” and “fiction documentary” categories? Banksy isn’t helping, as he’s insisting the film is all true despite even a basic fact-check not supporting that.
But the use of the Guetta “character” allows a Banksy film to publicize Banksy without directly seeming to. The fauxhemian “irony” of the work is what fuels the hipster sensibilities of this world in which Banksy operates. By Banksy playing the hooded rebel, trying to hide his identity, people almost miss the fact he’s as driven for publicity as P.T. Barnum himself – and even uses an elephant in his quest.
The book world has gone through this kind of struggle for a different reason – unlike film, nonfiction books outsell novels ten times over. A spate of pure hoaxes such as James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” have overshadowed and perhaps allowed middle-ground debates about the truthfulness of nonfiction, such as Frank McCourt’s acclaimed “Angela’s Ashes,” in which the writer recounted long stretches of dialogue that happened when he was four years old – an impossibility, but explained by the fact that there was a “basic truth” to the story.
But in the same way, there are basic truths to fiction. “The Hurt Locker” was produced on a budget microscopic for a feature film, but generous for a documentary, and it is representative of the reality of the war in Iraq. Conversely, if we were to find out that “The Cove” created as a fiction the events of the film, we’d be outraged.
A documentary, in my mind, is 100 percent factual. Anything less than that makes it a fiction.
And in the end, I can’t help wonder if “Exit” might have played just as well without the fiction. As a chronicle of Banksy’s street art, and of other artists such as the controversial Shepard Fairey, it would have been good. But to say that is to also miss the point. The buzz about “Exit” is a replication of street art’s challenge to the status quo. Banksy, in my mind, is hardly a renegade at all, but as much a mainstream careerist as the gang up at Goldman Sachs, cleverly manipulating the product for maximum return – the antithesis of the traditional documentarian, who toils for small pay and small audiences, in search of some illuminating truth. The controversy over this film has been its own best public relations campaign, and that, in my mind, is truly a statement of the cynicism that infuses this “documentary.”