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Saturday, April 23, 2005

THE THIN LINE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION

With documentary films from ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM to AFTER INNOCENCE and MURDERBALL, increasingly filmmakers are working in the documentary form, expanding the vocabulary of documentary with weighter dramatic storytelling for theatrical, broadcast, and cable release. These films employ dramatic structured storytelling, occassional reinactment, and character development normally reserved for dramatic films shot for big screen cinema.

One of the best examples of the blurring of lines between drama and documentary was the 1988 Cannes Camera d'Or winning SALAAM BOMBAY! by Mira Nair. Released in cinemas as a drama, Nair's truth-seeking story depicted life on the streets of Bombay; the casting of real street children as actors for Krishna, Manju, Chillum, and Baba; as well as the faithfulness and honesty of the her storytelling could easily place this powerful film in the category of documentary.

In a stunning and poignant contrast two films from the 80s, Martin Bell's 1984 documentary STREETWISE crafts a realistic yet compelling dramatic fly-on-the-wall story of kids on the streets of Seattle and the Hector Barbenco's drama PIXOTE: A LEI DO MAIS FRACO (1981) about street kids in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Both are films barely distinguish themselves as to which is documentary and which is drama.

In the Oscar nominated documentary LALEE'S KIN (2001), Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson cast a powerful matriarch figure who cries, prey's and sings her way through the bluesy real life of poverty and illiteracy in the third world conditions of the Mississippi Detla. LaLee's young boy wards of four and six learn to pronounce the word penitentiary before they can begin to comprehend the words chemistry, agriculture, and algebra. Each frame of this incredibly moving documentary carries the weight and visual insight of a carefully crafted and elaborately storyboarded fictional recreation of naturalist narrative or social realism.

Likewise, Siddiq Barmak's OSAMA (2003) cast an amateur 12-year-old Afghan girl Marina Golbahari who has been working as a begger on the Taliban transformed streets of Kabul as the films lead. Golbahari's performance is riveting, especially if you know she isn't acting, she had only seen one film (a pirated back street copy of TITANIC) before starring in the drama and that she earned $14 for her work in OSAMA. In her own words, Golbahari said, after shooting an impactful scene where she is lowered into a well, went home and cried in fear wondering what she had done choosing to be in the film. Where does character acting end and documentary begin?

Jean Luc Godard said, when you start out making dramatic fiction you move toward documentary and when you begin with documentary you move toward fiction. In the faithfulness to any story, a writer, researcher, filmmaker, and documentarian must put themselves in service of a truth to the world the film inhabits and in where it exists to keep the viewer ingrossed in the story.

Yet, with all the emergence of new documentary vocabulary, filmmakers carry an added responsibility and burden in walking the line between fiction and documentary. This is most evident in Jack Cahill and David Eberhardt's LONG GONE. The film is a poetic and romantic depiction of life on the rails but riddled with the pitfalls of honest and dishonest storytelling.

The tramps who ride the rails are notorious for their storytelling and the life has a fanciful romance that is itself fiction. In reality, life riding boxcars is brutal, ugly and wrought with deceptions. One of the character cast in LONG GONE is New York Slim, a man who tells us he went to Vietnam, fought heroic battles, was captured and taken as a prisoner of war and allegedly returned to Seattle in a war prisoner release negotiated by the Nixon administration. Your heart sinks for a war-hero reduced to living his tormented-hell to the constant beat of the steel-wheel screeching against its track. New York Slim rides the rails wearing a POW t-shirt and talks about supporting his men in his a company. In the end, Slim's story is all a huge deception and a metaphor depleted by lies.

Cahill and Eberhardt engage in a documentary deception by refusing to reveal aspects of the story critical to understanding the plain truth. After establishing the illusion throughout the film the filmmakers chose to reveal the fact that New York Slim never went to Vietnam on a card at the end. A dubious revelation and thus it set us up to reflect poorly on Slim rather that try to understand his self-delusions and deliberate fabrications of fact.

But New York Slims facade is only the beginning of the flaws with the story they are trying to tell. The extent of drug use and transport on the rails by the subjects is glossed over in the attempts by the filmmakers to "protect" their subjects. Characters cast in LONG GONE, such as the two upper middle class girls who ride the rails as a form of fanciful escape from the hum-drum lives are not fully realized or explained either dramatically, with insight or unvarnished truth. At one point we see Stonie insert a needle into the arm of Jessie to shoot her up with dope and then just as quickly turns around and acts chivalrous by saying while he is becoming strung out, he would never want to see her using dope. These make up the layers and layers of contradiction and evasiveness at the films core.

Dogman Tony and New York Slim, are depicted as a brotherhood of men on the rails who stand up for each-other but it turns out the filmmakers facade is a romantic myth. In turn, the tramps beat eachother down, are codependent enablers (sorry to use such 12-step loaded language but its true) and the illusions the film struggle to uphold fail to capture the truth of the world in inhabits.

While it is truthful for Cahill and Eberhardt to reveal in LONG GONE the blatant hype and superficial sensationalist storytelling of the 20/20 TV news crew that tries to do a segment on Dogman Tony, they resort to the same filmic deceptions in faithfulness to their poetic romantic preconceptions and conceal as much truth as they chose to reveal.

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AFTER INNOCENCE and MURDERBALL were shown at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and were picked up for distribution. THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM opened on April 22 in cinemas. LONG GONE was shown at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival in 2003 and won Best Documentary at River Run International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and at the 2003 Slamdance in Park City, Utah.

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