There’s this slightly ugly trend that’s been going on in documentary filmmaking for a while. I’m sure it has some roots going many years back, but it’s come into my radar and I’m not sure how well it’s been covered or mentioned, so I figured I might as well pipe up.
Succinctly: For years, promoters and production types have been approaching documentary filmmakers, people who have dug some sort of story from reality, and have purchased the fictional remake rights.
I will be the first to admit I’m rather curmudgeonly about the documentary form, considering it a very special genre of film in which directors are implicitly making promises to the audience, promises that they could easily renege on without the audience being the wiser. The audience, to some level, is brought to believe that what they’re seeing is either filmed reality or film composed from reality. How much any member of the audience is willing to accept this for any amount of time is up in the air, but when you see action occurring, you think that you’re seeing filmed reality, and when you see people talking to the camera, you think you’re seeing someone being in some way interviewed in actual reality. All interviews can be cut weird and all interviewees can lie, but they’re really lying, like someone who is standing in front of you might be lying to you.
There are films that ape the documentary style, for example Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, in which his characters seem to be followed by a documentary crew and the people within it are answering interview questions at various juncture points throughout the film. It brings in a strange other reality for the film, and someone who doesn’t know who Woody Allen is might think this was a real documentary. There was a film I saw in film school which appears in every way to be a documentary about a girl going out and the cameraman is interviewing her and at some point she breaks down and reveals she was recently raped, and the students watching it were shocked when it had credits of actors playing the parts and we were told it was a scripted fictional play. This is all grey area and artists being artists so I don’t have much to say about them other than maintaining they should have truthful labels and not be filed under “documentary”.
Conversely, there is a scene at the end of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine that I do consider a breach of trust: He hammers Charlton Heston about gun control, which is fine, and typical journalistic assholery towards a greater good, perceived or otherwise. But at the end of this sequence, Heston walks away, and Moore calls him to show him a picture of a little girl who died from a shooting. This scene is impossible. The reverse shot we see simply cannot have been filmed at the same time we see Heston reacting to a photo. Moore might be actually showing the photo in the shot with Heston in the background and Moore in the foreground, but that reverse shot is being done at a later time, before they leave the grounds. Flat out. I consider that a lie, no matter how much it clears up the narrative flow for Moore’s editors. There is no grey area for me, I consider it wrong.
But I have no such concerns about most movies, even ones “based on a true story”. Even I know that when something is “based on a true story” it could mean that there once was a real story about someone, and all it shares with this story is both guys owned a dog. Or they lived in Portland, Oregon. Or they had a wife named Jill. It’s complete fluff and irrelevant that it was “based on a true story” just as much as that it’s “filmed on location”. I don’t apply any standard to it and dismiss it as fiction and enjoy or don’t enjoy it on its merits.
Such a low consideration, then, becomes problematic when that fictionalized story is “based upon” a documentary, especially when in all ways the documentary is based off of reality and therefore you know it’s not just a small overlap of details but many of them, and that what you are seeing is a hyped-up action-packed remake of real events. That brings in something, some weight or cachet, that an audience, including myself, might put upon the work. That’s significant.
There was a film called Dogtown and Z-Boys which I saw back in 2001 at my local theater, which I really enjoyed. I forgot why I wanted to see it other than I was really getting into documentaries and this one looked pretty cool and so off I went. I was really taken with how great the editing was, how it had so much vintage footage and portrayal of all these events, and I was also blown away by how good it looked. This was, in some ways, what strengthened my resolve to the idea that I, too, would make a documentary.
The issue, however, is that the film has a couple problematic aspects that I wasn’t aware of at the time. For example, one of the people in it, Stacy Peralta, is also the director. That’s not a fantastic situation, to have your movie be about something and you’re one of the major players in the story. Glen Friedman, a photographer for skateboard magazine, is an interviewee and also a producer of the film. The film is also funded by Vans, a shoe and apparel company. An article that goes in all sorts of pointing-finger detail about this is here.
But all that aside, what happened was that four years later, we had a fictional film based on the documentary, based on reality. Called Lords of Dogtown, this coming of age story used real people’s names, remixes some of the events, and has actual people in cameos near characters playing them. Are you going to watch it on its own merits? Or are you thinking that, because it’s based on a real story, it’s got some additional weight to throw around because things you’re watching are “reality”? It is, in other words, successfully more troubling than the original Dogtown documentary.
From here, my concerns about there being a trend start to fall together. Grey Gardens (1975), considered to be one of the classics of documentary form, is about the story of two distant relatives of Jackie Kennedy, living their lives in a dilapidated house and going some form of Mad. Grey Gardens (2008) is to be a fictionalized version of same, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange playing the parts of the two women from the first documentary, and a few dozen additional actors thrown into the mix. This new fictional film should also not be confused with The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), which is another documentary by the same documentary filmmakers who made the 1975 Gardens.
And before the question comes to you, yes, I was approached on several occasions to sell or otherwise collaborate on fictionalized versions of the BBS Documentary. In one case one of the reporters who told my story was asked if we wanted to collaborate on a book or film, and in another case I was approached directly by a smiling, smarmy producer type who was more than happy to help me realize the full potential of my project by making a fictional script and who quickly became insulting, abusive and phone-throwing when I told him in impolite terms my own version of “fuck off”. I was let into a lot of homes and told a lot of special stories by a lot of people who trusted me. I consider turning around and making Wargames with more tits to be a betrayal of that trust.
So I started asking filmmakers, when I went to their screenings, and after the question period had ended and I was chatting them up at a later time, if they too had been approached for the fictional/story rights. So far, basically all have. Some had even sold them, before the film was even released. I think this is now the norm and is being done consistently. Or, conversely, is well on its way to being consistent in the case of unique stories that can’t just be made up without obvious pointing to the original documentary.
I don’t like this at all, not one bit. I consider it strip-mining of the worst sort, taking stories of people that are being told in these crafted works, and then turning them out on the street corner to be jazzed up, dashed about, tarted around with death and lipstick and repackaged again and again. I’m sure there’s a thousand little stories the directors can tell themselves about why this is a fantastic idea, but I am not in the least bit interested.
But the tragic part, or maybe the best part of all, is there’s nothing I can really do about this. It’s just another revenue stream being exploited, another quick-fix to sagging storylines that’s patched on, another cheap trick in an industry that prides itself on cheap tricks.
But I thought you might like to know about it.
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