The Digital Journalist
Mockumentary Flap

by Ron Steinman

We live in an age of instant gratification where it seems the audience has lost the patience to sit still for anything serious, anything demanding of its brainpower. I care too much about the documentary film, and the different, mostly wrong, directions the genre is taking.

My concern is for those of us who make documentary films now and those who, I hope, will continue to make them in the future. We are on a new playing field in the world of the fact film, a playing field not of our making. There are new stresses, new competition, and an audience steeped in the uselessness and waste of reality TV. We cannot depend on anyone for even the small support, if any, we received in the past, whether financial, spiritual, or emotional all necessary so we can continue with our creative pursuits.

I want to remind you of a contentious story that has been around for months, yet the controversy surrounding it has all but disappeared. The story broke in March and I plan to keep it alive. I care about the purity of the form, which is always an issue for documentary filmmakers. What recently happened is a window into a changing world as we move rapidly into the digital age. Most people, including many of our esteemed film critics, do not understand the serious ramifications surrounding the fakery involved. As with so much in our lives today, credibility is at stake. My concern is about intentional changes in the form by some people who are more interested in effect - that is, how something looks, and how the audience reacts to it - rather than the truth of what they are portraying. That lack of honesty as a standard is unfair to the legions of honest documentary filmmakers.

It is why I chose now to write of the recent controversy surrounding the Oscars for films made in 2004 in the short documentary segment. That this happened in that category does not mean the longer category is immune to the same defects.

Here are the facts as I know them.

The producer of "Sister Rose's Passion," a film nominated last year in the short documentary category for an Oscar - and incidentally, not the winner - complained, according to The Associated Press, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after the ceremony about "Mighty Times: The Children's March," the winner of the Oscar. The complainant alleged that the winning entry failed "to disclose which parts of the film were reenacted." The implication, eventually born out, was that far more of the film was reenacted than is normal for a documentary. It was a serious charge, although according to the Academy's rules, reenactments are allowed.

For the record here is the exact wording of the Academy's rules.

"Rule Twelve: Special Rules for The Documentary Awards.

1: Definition

"An eligible documentary film is defined as theatrically released non-fiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic or other subjects. It may be photographed in actual occurrence, or may employ partial reenactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion or other techniques, as long as the emphasis in on fact and not on fiction."

In reading the rules, it is clear they do not define or clarify the percentage of reenactments allowed in any eligible documentary film.

The winners of the award admitted they used reenactments but they never revealed how much of the film they recreated to make us believe we were watching the event as if it were real. The producers never told us the percentage of the film they faked. Yes, faked. What the producers did made their film a hoax. They wanted the audience to believe it was watching real footage, not their recreations, to make a more believable film. The producers eventually admitted they used antique cameras, distressed film stock, period vehicles, and a cast of 700 people. Yes, there was a cast of 700, including many children and dogs, all used to recreate scenes of a 1963 civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama. Those who later screened the movie again, and this time more carefully, estimate that at least half the film was not authentic. Does that make the film a lie? For me it does. Because it now falls well out of the range of what a documentary should be. When pressed, the film's producers admitted what they did, but the problem is they never told anyone when they submitted their film to the Academy.

Deception? Absolutely. The production team did not produce a documentary film, as we know one, but something in a different category, more like a non-fiction narrative film. More like a drama using documentary techniques, or sometimes called a docudrama because the producers casually base it on real events. Create your own category, because, I fear we will see more of this technique in the coming years. Holding an audience is more important than the truth, but trickery is not the answer.

Documentary filmmakers should be outraged by these shenanigans. They are not. They are part of the problem, especially those who produce for cable and PBS. I believe they want the controversy to disappear, rather than to attack it at its core. Today, though, with much happening so fast in our society dominated by mass media, some so-called documentary filmmakers believe they need all the help they can get to hold an audience as they tell their story. I can understand that and I sympathize, but I do not agree. Moreover, it is not good filmmaking.

Word from Hollywood is that the Academy board will probably tighten its standards and in the future eligible documentaries will be allowed only up to 10 percent reenactments. The changes cannot come too soon. By the way, despite their chicanery, the winners will retain their Oscar.

Understand that the documentary film was never pure. It is not pure today. To bring an audience in and hold it, executive producers, directors and writers started playing with the documentary form. These people understand that audiences want to be entertained, especially for television. Commercial dollars that support television will not allow for dullness in any type of film. Commercial dollars keep broadcasters afloat. Audiences do not understand that the people who run these networks and the production companies that serve them also wish to be entertained, and they do not want to go broke doing it. It is easy to blame television for destroying what we once considered honorable creativity. That said, television executives who run cable networks and production houses that supply these new supposed documentaries, or whatever they are, consider the old-fashioned documentary film too dull for adult eyes. By the way, these days, anything old-fashioned is considered nearly worthless.

Effectively, television executives killed the sometime, but not always, wonder of the documentary film. They helped these films become the new non-fiction genre which comes replete with heavy reenactments, actors, and even, in some cases, an openness about the reenacted parts of the film. They want us to know they have actors in scenes from a time when cameras did not exist, such as the Middle Ages or the Crusades, and they are proud to be doing it. It is more than what we heard from the questionable winner of last year's Oscar in the short form documentary. Producers use filmic devices such as blurred images, swish pans, low angle shots, and false images to make you believe you are there when something important took place, when no film could possibly have existed at the event in question.

Reenactments are not the same as redos. We know what Robert Flaherty and the early sociological filmmakers did to create their films. They started the practice of having the subjects repeat their moves. That way the camera could capture different angles as the people went about their lives. Any filmmaker will tell you that to make a documentary film with the usual single-camera crew, the director must repeat certain shots to allow the editor to work on the film within the strictures of film grammar. It is impossible to shoot a documentary without having shots and angles repeated. If not, the film will be an uncoordinated jumble of images where sequences make no sense. In the 1920s and 1930s when black-and-white dominated movies, different and odd angles, often created in editing instead of during the shoot, filled the screen. Dissolves of varying durations, wipes of all sorts, and quick cuts were the norm rather than the exception. Directors used these devices to keep the audience awake so its attention would not flag. Films need form. Form gives the viewer the opportunity to understand the purpose of the film. Having an unclear vision, or worse, to be obtuse, does not allow the message of the film to come through. These are simple rules of filmmaking and ones for which I have no objection. They do not alter the integrity of the film.

My concerns are different and they are not new. I have not in the past nor am I now a fan of pandering to the audience by using tricks and techniques usually associated with Hollywood and the narrative film. If you watch closely and listen carefully to many so-called documentary films of today, you will recognize techniques from the realism school that pervaded the early black-and-white fictional films produced in Hollywood. These devices were prevalent especially when the director wanted to portray the passage of time by using montage, fast cutting, and voiceover to move the movie along.

Some years back a new phrase slipped into our language. Frightened producers, distributors, theater owners and TV networks thought documentary films were dull, too often academic and tackled subjects that only a narrow audience could love. They were partly correct. No one wanted to watch these films, especially when they played in theaters, a rare enough event. They came up with a new catchall phrase, and called them the non-fiction film. Newspapers wrote about the change. Filmmakers rushed to use new and different techniques for their work. Suddenly, reenactments, once frowned on as not pure, became a strong element in many documentaries.

We restaged, not reenacted, scenes even when the networks produced many hours of documentaries in the 1960s. Restaging or repeating a move was done then simply to help the editor cut the film. But restaging never changed the mood or essence of the film, nor should it now. Restaging can be a part of the film. It should not be a deviation from reality. Reality, in any documentary film, exists in the moment of what happens in front of the camera. That is where the filmmaker's vision lives, or should live, without the unneeded help we can honestly call cheating. We find restaging in independent films; we did it for documentaries for cable and PBS, and we will continue to do it. But restaging is not reenactment.

At times, the documentary can and does succeed honestly for past events for which the camera was not present. Recently the History Channel, in a refreshing departure from what has become the norm, presented a two-part documentary on FDR using no reenactments. The film was effective, using archival motion pictures, still photos, documents and talking heads to explain what we were watching. It may not have been the most scintillating viewing, but it was honest, and that says something for the History Channel, often itself a transgressor of the form with its use of reenactments the same as other cable channels. As risky as that film may have been to the programmer, it shows what is possible, despite the effort to make these films hokey by using actors and phony reenactments. Frontline on PBS also deserves applause because many of its documentaries take place in real time using real footage.

We must act to preserve the integrity of filmmaking. Do I dare ask what next? Will documentary filmmakers move into the world of mockumentaries? Will we further foster the notion that dishonesty is preferred in this, one of the possible last frontiers of truth-telling? I believe in truth in labeling. Having produced, directed and written documentaries in all genres on all levels, the most satisfying are those where everything is original and where the story through the medium of film carries the day. That is not always possible. Without sounding nave, I hope that all filmmakers, however they work, and wherever they work, will get back to the honest pursuit of their dreams. Always let the audiences understand where truth ends and fancy begins. With that, there might be fewer sleepless nights inside the creative community. The result will be a better-informed populace.

The future of the form lies in the hands of the independent documentary filmmaker when he or she takes his or her digital camera and, often, shoots everything in sight. They come to the documentary film with the lofty idea of making movies that tackle difficult, moving, tender, controversial, gritty, warm and probing subjects. Let them do so honestly. Without that happening, there will be little chance of continuing the medium the way it was during its days of glory.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.