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Tony Grist

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Deconstructing The Documentary [Feb. 13th, 2005|11:15 am]
Tony Grist
Documentaries are true- right?

Mostly they conform to the conventions of popular fiction. There's a hero. He has a point of view. Evidence is presented that leads to an inescapable conclusion. Think of Farenheit 9/11. Not much room for subtle ambiguity there.

And then there's Capturing the Friedmans.

A man is identified as a paedophile. The community panics. Children, pressured by parents and police, "remember" taking part in sex orgies orchestrated by the man and his 18 year old son. The man is clearly guilty- but of what exactly? His son may be guilty, may be innocent, may be a victim himself, but his behaviour is so erratic- he protests his innocence, then confesses to the judge, weeping real tears, then goofs off for the camera on the court house steps- that you wind up not having a clue. Witnesses routinely contradict one another. One victim graphically describes his abuse, another admits to having told the police what they wanted to hear. A police officer talks about finding stacks of kiddie-porn on open display in the man's house and as she speaks we're shown a montage of police photographs, taken at the time of the search, which proves there was nothing there to find.

The movie has no hero. The nearest thing to a point-of-view character is the oldest brother, tireless champion of the family name. A conventional documentary might have shaped the material so we empathised with his suffering and admired his tenacity. But we are denied that comfort. The man is shouty and scary and a confirmed misogynist who decides early on that it's all his mother's fault.

Capturing The Friedman's gives us human mess. The more it tells us the less we understand. It destroys our faith in the talking head.

I shall never trust a documentary again.

[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2005-02-13 05:35 am (UTC)
I did not see the documentary in question. BUT...there will always be 'the human viewpoint' in documentaries. IN the case of Farenheit 9/11 you have the (unambiguous, as you pointed out) views of Michael Moore. But the Swift Boat Veterans made a documentary. In each case, the views are those of the creator. (or creators) Not right, not wrong...just human.

I have become increasingly disenchanted with such things. But then again, perhaps the 'documentary' you are talking about served a purpose - it reminded you that there are many points of view to a story. And, just as they may all be right, they may also all be wrong.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-02-13 06:33 am (UTC)
It's a remarkable movie. You might say it was the documentaries to end all documentaries.
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[User Picture]From: sorenr
2005-02-13 06:56 am (UTC)
You might say it was the documentaries to end all documentaries.

Oh, but surely it is not! It is, if anything, paving the road for a new generation of documentaries, like Shoah did in its day; by allowing itself to be blatantly subjective it is somehow countering the main accusation directed at documentaries: that they always have a hidden agenda, a pre-conceived conclusion that they aim towards. Fahrenheit 9/11 does not have a hidden, but a displayed agenda, and the agenda itself is much more important than any other part of the film.

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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-02-13 10:02 am (UTC)
Now I've gotta see it.

HBO showed a documentary about a retarded man who lived with his aging parents. The time came when the parents couldn't manage any longer, and they helped him make the transition to a group home.

I wish I could see this once again. It was beautifully done and highlighted most delicately the depth of love in that one small family.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-02-13 12:17 pm (UTC)
I watch a lot of documentaries- when it comes to TV they're what I mainly watch- but it's very rare that one sticks in my memory.
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