Documentary: Facts and Fictions

Image by Ken Coffelt

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary Film for the 2011 Academy Award.  Interestingly, it is credited as being directed by Banksy, a pseudonym for a famed street artist, who also appears onscreen as a darkened, hooded figure who speaks through a voice-altering device.  In reality, no one really knows exactly who the real Banksy is. The film originated through footage shot by Thierry Guetta who sought to document the street art scene, but at some point, Banksy took over the footage and wound up constructing this film, which focuses on Guetta as the central figure.  Guetta went from being the film-maker to being a street artist and became Banksy’s subject.  The film raises questions about art, commerce, and authorship.  But beyond that, a lot of people question the authorship of the film itself, whether Banksy is the author/director, how much of the story he tells is true, and whether or not the whole thing is a hoax.

When you hear the term “documentary film,” most people assume that the subject will be non-fictive, something factual and real.  And by extension, much as in news reportage, we are given to take the “facts” being presented as an objective truth.  True objectivity may be an impossibility in the sense that subjectivity and authorship step in the moment that a camera angle is chosen, a scene is spliced to another, or something is left on the cutting room floor.  Yet suggested in the very definition of the term exists a belief that documentaries document reality and truth objectively—things from the real world.

Since around the turn of the 21st Century, the volume of documentary films has exploded.  The main reason for this explosion is simple: the cost of the means of production for film have dropped significantly.  With increasingly cheaper, yet increasingly good digital video cameras, the tools to produce a film have been handed to the masses in a way that has never been available before.  With digital distribution and the Internet providing access, films that get produced have increasing means of reaching the public, not merely through traditional distribution channels.  As a result, a lot more documentaries are produced and seen every year.

Catfish and I’m Still Here

In 2010, Banksy was not alone in having the verity of his documentary questioned.  The film Catfish (2010), directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, also told a story quite “stranger than fiction” that also dealt with identity, truth, and authorship.  Questions were raised by some quite immediately as to how “true” the story was, how much the film-makers milked the events for dramatic effect, and ultimately the whole production’s relationship to reality.  According to one account, Morgan Spurlock, director of the documentary Super Size Me (2004), told the film-makers that it was “the best fake documentary” he had ever seen.

The film-makers of both Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop have maintained that their films tell true stories, that things are as they are depicted in the films.  By the nature of the Banksy film, taking footage from someone else (Guetta had produced his own version of a film from the same stockpile titled “Life Remote Control”) and reconstructing a story from it, entirely speaks to the re-interpretation of the documented footage.  The questions remain hotly debated on the levels of reality depicted in these films.

Even further afield was the “documentary” I’m Still Here (2010), directed by Casey Affleck and starring his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, covering the period of a year when Phoenix purportedly quit acting to become a hip hop star, grew a long beard, and acted like an ass.  While many people wondered aloud during the film’s production as to whether or not the whole thing was an act, a piece of performance art, or really an image of the dark night of a Hollywood soul, when the film was released, it was purported to be a documentary.

It was only a week or so after the film was released that Affleck and Phoenix stepped out from behind the guise to announce that it indeed was an act of fiction, a performance, a sham.  While one could wonder who exactly was supposed to be duped and what meaning is supposed to be derived from this film and the charade, it certainly added to the lack of clarity, the growing questions, around every documentary that has been coming out.  How much of it is real?  Is it real at all?

Perhaps it is due to the greater quantities of documentaries that these issues seem to be more prevalent and foregrounded.  For in the realm of the political documentaries, it has long been known that a Michael Moore film is, while factual to an extent, is admittedly slanted in its message.  Moore’s films are still called documentaries.  He won Best Documentary Film in 2004 for Farenheit 9/11.

But it’s not just “Left Wing” media who have taken to the form.   In 2008, the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, directed by Nathan Frankowski and starring Ben Stein, was a film about the suppression of the teaching of intelligent design as an alternate theory to evolution.  Now, honestly, I haven’t seen the film myself, but it is one of a growing number of non-fiction films that are made to espouse a political ideology.  And these films, at present, are still classified as documentaries.

Mockumentaries and “Found Footage” Films

Alongside the increasing number of films that are documentaries, there has also blossomed a style of fictional films shot to “appear” to be documentaries.  “Mockumentaries” are one outcropping, such as the comedic genre associated with Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap [1984], Waiting for Guffman [1996]).   Another increasing subgenre is the “found footage” horror film, whose roots reach back beyond The Blair Witch Project (1999) to films such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980).  These are films that pretend to have been shot by a real person with a video camera, and that the events that have been captured (the film itself) are the remaining document of what happened (something that usually kills everyone in the film, leaving only the film to tell the tale).  Recently, the success of Paranormal Activity (2007) and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) support the notion that this cycle has not yet completed.  When people buy into the reality of a movie, it can heighten their fear and enhance the horror experience.

With fiction wearing the garb of non-fiction and the growing scrutiny of documentaries as truth, the lines continue to blur between these two supposedly oppositional types of film.  The “language” of the documentary (the hand-held camera, the interviews, textual information onscreen explicating, the talking head, etc.) has become that of the purely fictional narrative as well.

Perhaps the challenge always was there to question the verity and authenticity of the information that we are provided, especially when it is delivered as fact.  As objective as its creators might attempt to be, any film still colors its material, one way or another.  For films like Michael Moore’s and others who offer something more akin to a commentary piece, perhaps they should be classified as such?  But then what for the ones that are classified as factual, but are either poorly researched or intentionally misleading?  What about a film like I’m Still Here that completely seeks to dupe us? Has it moved from documentary to mockumentary?

Since Robert J. Flaherty’s groundbreaking silent documentary Nanook of the North (1922), one of the earliest documentary feature films, proudly displayed Inuit culture to a world that had never seen such a thing before, the “reality” on display was nearly a fiction.  Nanook’s wife was not his wife, scenes were staged, the igloo was partially open in order to be able to have enough light to shoot interiors.  Nanook was not even his name.  There has long been a history of deception in the name of truth.

So, is Banksy who he says he is?  Is the story of Exit Through the Gift Shop or Catfish any more veritable than Joaquin Phoenix’s hip hop career?   And how will we ever fully know the extent of the reality versus the extent of the fiction?  Maybe knowing is not something entirely achievable, but the importance of questioning, of analyzing, of thinking through the things told to us as facts—perhaps that is the value lesson.  Perhaps that extends beyond documentary to all of the information that we receive in the name of fact.

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