How ‘fake reality’ threatens documentaries
Patrick Goldstein has a think piece in the Los Angeles Times that speaks compellingly of how the co-opting of the word “reality” is creating greater challenges for audiences, and by that greater challenges to those of us who are doing documentaries.
He says that now that “I’m Not Here” has been exposed as an utter fake” (I wonder if it is, or simply the work of two guys who have lost touch with what reality actually is), it bears discussion about what we see, and what is supposedly real.
TV is overrun with reality TV shows, which might be the least accurate genre moniker of all time, since virtually all reality TV shows are shaped, scripted and full of storylines that are just as complex and convoluted (and often just as preposterous) as any soap opera or telenovela series. At the multiplexes this weekend, “I’m Still Here” was joined by “Catfish,” a fascinatingly ambiguous documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman about a wide-eyed young New York photographer–actually one of the director’s brothers–who engages in an online romance with a mysterious young woman who turns out to be entirely different from whom she appears to be.
Reality shows, of course, are made by people (and usually “star” people) who carry in them the worst kind of cynicism. Goldstein notes that be it television, YouTube or documentary, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what you should accept as being real. A more existential argument is that the “Catfish” filmmakers are simply products of an era in which nothing is objectively real and anyone under, say, 30, is raised on the posturing “microcelebrity” imperative of creating a “profile” instead of presenting as a person, and having “friends” you’ve never met. Maybe “Catfish” is reality as these filmmakers know it.
Our level of disbelief has so thoroughly colored our interaction with art that when “Catfish” was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it immediately inspired a wave of skeptical catcalls. In the lead was Movieline’s Kyle Buchanan, who put up a post debunking the film, saying ”I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax…. You’re telling me that a pair of young filmmakers documenting said story would never think to Google their mysterious subjects over a span of several months?”
For so-called “live action” documentaries, it’s never the case that you get true reality, as much as an ethical filmmaker may try. Scientists call it the “observer effect,” and the Polish biologist Ludwig Fleck noted “people observe what they expect to observe until compellingly shown otherwise.” PBS’s “An American Family” was a groundbreaking documentary when aired in 1973, not just because of the Loud family’s internal drama, but also because people wondered whether their behavior (Lance coming out of the closet, Pat demanding a divorce from Bill) was a result of being emboldened by the presence of camera crews and the knowledge their behavior would be put before audiences. The minute you turn a camera on, nothing is truly real.
But the upshot of all these films and shows that abuse the term “reality” is that nothing then is truly as compelling. To see what is real can be an ennervating and sometimes exhilarating experience; when people keep it in the back of their head that all may not be as it seems, the potential for a documentary to rise to its best is undercut, and both filmmakers and audiences pay a price for that.