Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 3, 2017
There was a time, not too long ago, when the veracity of what was portrayed in a documentary was a given. If someone put together a non-fiction film, surely we could trust our own eyes. Over time, questions began to arise and the veracity of documenting life on film was called into question. It was revealed, for instance, that the lemmings plunging to their death in Walt Disney’s White Wilderness (1958) weren’t actually killing themselves en masse but being scared off of a cliff’s edge and, in some cases, thrown off, by the filmmakers. Why? Because people were under the impression that lemmings killed themselves like some tiny rodentia version of the People’s Temple, sans the Kool-Aid. And, hey, if that’s what people thought, might as well give them what they want, right? Um, right? But Nanook of the North* (1922) was no Disney True-Life Adventure. It was a pioneering look into a different culture that set the standard for biographical documentaries for years to come. But is it real? Well, that depends on your definition of real.
Nanook of the North, once famous for its pioneering documentary techniques alone, is now almost as famous for faking much of what is seen. Actually, faking is the wrong word. What is seen is real, as in the walrus hunt really happened, just not accurate, as in that’s not the way the Inuit hunted walruses at the time. They used guns but Flaherty convinced Allakariallak, the actor playing Nanook, to use a spear instead to show how his ancestors would have done it. And, to quote Roger Ebert, “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.” True. However, it still could have been shown with the understanding that Allakariallak was recreating what his ancestors did much as any cable documentary is filled with reenactments making no claim to be authentic people but actors.
And there’s the problem that it’s insulting as hell to Allakariallak and, by extension, all Inuits. Showing Allakariallak attempting to bite into a gramophone record as if it was a big biscuit, when he damn well knew what a gramophone was, is exactly the kind of thing that makes modern day viewers recoil with horror at the dripping condescension and implied white superiority.
But it still all happened, right? I mean, Allakariallak was a real person who could hunt walruses and make igloos even if he didn’t need to do things like he did them in the film and we really are watching him do those things in the movie. And to this day, documentarians stage scenes from nature for their films because just happening upon something extraordinary or rare can take a lot of time and a lot of money, money that most documentaries don’t have. Ever watch a nature documentary and wonder how they got that incredible shot inside a beaver lodge or a bear’s den? Well, sometimes they just set up a camera inside a zoo enclosure or an aquarium. Years ago I watched a documentary on squids and cuttlefish and for the egg laying sequence they had to film the cuttlefish in a tank, not in the wild, because they’re small and they needed the camera mounted. I know this because they said it in the discussion with the filmmakers after the special, so they owned up to it immediately. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Still, viewers saw the process of cuttlefish eggs being laid. Whether in the wild or not, the process was filmed and viewed and there is no doubt on either count.
Of course, it’s easy to pick these things out with nature documentaries or early works like Nanook of the North. What about modern documentaries about current events or modern day historical figures? What about filmmakers who edit interviews or leave out facts that might bolster the other side’s argument? And how much effect does the process of filming someone have on their behavior before the camera?
One such documentary that has me endlessly pondering this question is The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara* (2003), directed by Errol Morris. Robert McNamara, who served directly with General Curtis LeMay in World War II and later as Secretary of Defense for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, speaks directly to the viewer, as is the norm with a Morris movie, and relates details of his life and experiences. But how honest is he? He comes off as contrite for the wrongs he did and even admits that by any other standard where the U.S. wasn’t the victor, he could have been considered a war criminal. But is that self-damning or self-elevating? What do I mean? Well, that far removed from the events of World War II and Vietnam, would it be more advantageous to have people grumble, “He still defends what he did! What an S.O.B.!” or have people gush, “He seems to have learned from his mistakes and accepted that he was wrong. Politicians today could learn a thing or two from him!” Now I’m not saying he had the ulterior motive to do this, but I am saying that the second someone turns a camera on you and says, “Tell me about your life,” you’re probably not going to relate that time you did something immoral or cruel or selfish. And if you do relate something bad, because everyone already knows about it so you can’t avoid it, you’re most likely going to give it the best face possible while also appearing humble and matured.
So how real is The Fog of War?
Well, we really are watching McNamara talk about his life. And we really are getting some facts throughout about bombings during World War II and troop deployment during Vietnam. It’s coming from McNamara’s mouth but the movie is only a little under two hours long and Errol Morris interviewed McNamara for days and days, coming up with over 20 hours of footage. None of us have sat down to view all that footage so we will never know how honestly or deceptively edited it was. We can only take it at face value and accept what we see in the absence of any counter evidence.
So in one, Nanook of the North, we have the beginnings of the biographical documentary medium, portraying a real person, Allakariallak, playing a fictional person, Nanook, doing real things but not necessarily the things that Allakariallak would do, the things that Nanook would do. In the other, The Fog of War, we have the biographical documentary at its apex, in which the subject speaks directly to us, but we’re still not sure how much is true. Maybe nothing is true once the subject is aware they’re being filmed. Of course, the same probably applies to every person in every conversation with a stranger: we present a side we want them to see, not the one we don’t. They are our camera and we’re the subject but that still doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. In the end, documentaries aren’t the news, they’re movies. And they need to entertain. So when it comes down to a choice between complete accuracy or entertainment that educates, the latter will always win. Or as someone wise once said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
*Nanook of the North is available on FilmStruck under the Native People, Native Lands theme through March 24, 2017 and will then stream on The Criterion Channel. The Fog of War is available on FilmStruck under the Directed by Errol Morris theme through June 30, 2017.
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