For movies, the best thing to happen last week was documentarian Morgan Neville’s flip response to The New Yorker’s query about his having covertly used artificial intelligence to voice some of Anthony Bourdain’s lines in the film Roadrunner.
“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A. I., and you’re not going to know,” said Neville. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
That answer—especially the sassy second sentence—provoked outrage among peers with a stricter view of authenticity in nonfiction movies.
But it certainly cleared the air about a point that can’t be repeated too often, for the good of viewers and filmmakers alike. Documentaries are not real. They are a mere reflection of reality, subject to all the tricks, techniques and sleight-of-hand that directors and producers may—or may not—bring to bear.
Watching a well-crafted documentary, it is easy to be consumed by an overwhelming sense of having witnessed the truth. It’s all right there, before your eyes and ears. Beyond dispute. The camera doesn’t lie!
Just so, I can remember seeing hundreds of sophisticated Hollywood players swept into a near-frenzy of belief at a 2004 premiere screening of the anti-George Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. They had seen Bush and his minions as they really were, a pack of cynical, self-serving, half-witted hypocrites. Michael Moore had caught the bunch of them on film.
But sadly, after years in the news business and almost a decade inside the studio walls, I was stuck with the glum realization that this crowd, if any, should have known better. The picture, like all movies, was just a construct. A good editor could have taken the raw footage and constructed a Bush campaign film, probably with the same claim to validity.
The questions become trickier when, as with Roadrunner, a filmmaker actually manufactures a voice or an image. Was it done with an intent to deceive? Did it present the subject doing or saying something at odds with known fact? (In Bourdain’s case, the tell-tale line was a reading from his own email, so there was no apparent departure from personal truth.)
But, again, this small transgression—if such it was—illuminates another facet of the problem. Documentarians are not journalists. They are storytellers who work with sound, image, and careful arrangement of the facts. Ask them in an honest moment, and they will tell you so.
Back in 2009, the Center for Social Media at American University compiled a remarkably telling report entitled “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.” Based on anonymous interviews with 45 documentarians, many of them prominent, the survey concluded that nonfiction filmmakers, at the time, were operating under rules not very different from the ‘shoot-now-and-debate-later’ ethos voiced by Neville last week.
The easiest summary I can offer is a direct lift from my own New York Times article, of Sept. 14, 2009:
“The report found that documentarians, while they generally aspire to act honorably, often operate under ad hoc ethical codes. The craft tends to see itself as being bound less by the need to be accurate and fair than by a desire for social justice, to level the playing field between those who are perceived to be powerful and those who are not.
“That often means manipulating ‘individual facts, sequences and meanings of images,’ said the report, if that might help viewers to grasp the documentary’s ‘higher truth.’”
So, to repeat, ad nauseam, documentaries are not real. They reflect reality, sometimes with simple clarity, sometimes with the waviness of a fun-house mirror, but never with absolute reliability.
Morgan Neville’s flippant retort brought that home. Which, after all, is a good thing for all concerned.
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