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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.
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Comments:
[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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