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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: poliphilo
2005-02-13 09:53 am (UTC)
I can't think of any other documentary which does quite what this one does- give us a pile of contradictory materials and defy us to make sense of them. Usually there's a guiding hand, a sense that the truth is out there somewhere. Capturing The Friedman's is about the impossibility of ever knowing the truth. By highlighting the untrustworthiness of its talking heads it undermines all those earlier documentaries, including Shoah, which implicitly rely on us believing what interviewees say.

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[User Picture]From: sorenr
2005-02-13 10:27 am (UTC)
I haven't seen the documentary in question, but at last years CPH DOCS Documentary Film Festival there seemed to be a trend towards more fragmented, kaleidoscopic documentaries with no on true conclusion. "The uncertainty principle" seems finally to have broken through to documentaries...

As for Shoah I don't really think it asks us to believe the testamonies in a conventional way. It wants to shock, strike us with awe, not only at the stories told, but also at the film itself. It is still among the documentaries that have pointed most clearly at their own representation of history; clearly being stylistical and "arty", and thus inviting us to not only take in the various stories, but the film itself. Had it been a conventional documentary it would probably not have pushed the limits quite so far (e.g. in the director's rather brutal interview style), nor would it have been quite so long. Shoah was not meant to convey a message, a truth; it was, indeed, more of a piece of art than a piece of historical evidence or research. By chosing to make it 8-9 hours long (I forget exactly how long, but gosh it's long...) the director has made it clear that he does not want to convey anything to the general public. One might say it is a rather elitist tour de force...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-02-13 11:45 am (UTC)
I don't think I ever saw Shoah all the way through. What I remember of it are the wintry Polish landscapes. I forget what the witnesses had to say, but I remember the look and the feel of the places where they were filmed.
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[User Picture]From: four_thorns
2005-02-13 01:03 pm (UTC)
i agree with sorenr. the subjectivity of documentaries is neither new nor shocking. but i think this is less a matter of honest documentary vs misleading documentary. the trend in documentary film over the years has been towards a widening of voices, moving away from "representing an other" and towards "collaborating with the other". we've come a long way since nanook of the north. along with this shift has come the realization that no one voice or perspective is right, or accurate, or more worthy of representation. for example, timothy asch's 1975 film The Axe Fight documents asch's attempt to piece together the reasons behind an axe fight between members of an amazon tribe, but everyone he interviews has a different explanation for the fight. capturing the friedmans is sort of a continuation of this trend.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-02-14 01:47 am (UTC)
I wouldn't disagree.

In the light of Capturing the Friedmans conventional documentaries stand accused, not so much of dishonesty, as of naivety.

I keep seeing TV documentaries that claim to be able to reconstruct historical events on the basis of eye witness accounts.

For instance there was one the other day that reconstructed the exact trajectory of the Red Baron's plane on the day he died. They interviewed an elderly but sprightly Australian bloke who'd never spoken about it in public before but claimed he was the man to whom Von Richthofen addressed his dying words. Er- yes- right....
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