“Every cut is a lie, but you’re telling a lie to tell the truth.”
Wolf Koenig, filmmaker
I hunger for authenticity. I want to be true to my values and the people whose stories I tell. For my film capstone, I would like to share the stories of two friends in a way that (1) says something meaningful and (2) leaves you feeling like you genuinely know each of them. I want to communicate their stories truthfully, and I want to do as much or as little is needed to help them speak for themselves.
But how possible is it to present truth in film, when film is such a subjective medium? From where you point the camera to how you edit footage, the resulting images represent your point of view, your truth. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the father of kinopravda (“film-truth”), believed that the camera could capture reality, but it too is limited to and guided by the perspective of the human eye behind it.
To access more of the reality that we all experience differently, I think a director should make an effort to be aware of her biases and to incorporate as many perspectives on a subject as possible. If truths are partial and perspectival, then what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in.
I started thinking more about film-truth recently after watching three documentaries: Titicut Follies, Desert Migration, and Cowspiracy. They are fascinating to me because, even though they are all produced very differently, each one left me feeling so connected to its story. I feel as if I have experienced honest and true portrayals of reality, and I am now unavoidably part of each narrative.
Let’s start with Titicut Follies (1967). A classic example of cinema verité, it provides a stark observational portrayal of the inhumane conditions at a state institution for the criminally insane. Titicut Follies lacks clear narrative in its raw image sequences, challenging viewers to wrestle their own conclusions from the minimally edited (and often long-take) scenes. Injustice speaks for itself in the film, garnering sympathetic support for the patient-inmates. When I watched it with my classmates, we left feeling as if we had uncomfortably glimpsed more of their reality than we were supposed to, but we knew we could never un-see what we had seen.
Desert Migration (2015) is much more curated. The film provides a meditative window into the lives of thirteen long-term HIV/AIDS survivors who have migrated to and formed a community in Palm Springs. The script is entirely voiced-over from audio interviews with the men, and the pristine visuals are mainly B-roll edited in a day-in-the-life structure. The directors actually originally interviewed thirty candidates, then narrowed it down to the thirteen most compelling stories. Despite the clear directorial influence and cinematic aesthetic, the overall effect felt intimately personal and organic, as if I was a fly on the wall just “doing life” with them, privy to their innermost thoughts about death and the routines they’ve adopted to go on living with purpose.
In Cowspiracy (2014), filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn make a compelling case for the un-sustainability of the animal agriculture industry and its harmful effects on the environment. Of the three, this film reflects the most directorial influence because Andersen takes on the voice of “the common and curious citizen” as the story’s narrator and protagonist. I find myself trusting his leadership in the search for truth because he does a thorough job of inviting people on all sides of the issue to speak (although not everyone accepts the opportunity to present their perspective). To me, his investigation also begs the question, “To whom is the filmmaker responsible to tell the truth: the people in the film, or the intended audience of the film’s message?” Andersen does not sugarcoat the pointed silence or evasion of the leaders of top environmental organizations, so they come off poorly in the film. Indeed, midway through his inquiry, he fears for his own safety. As Homicide‘s J.H. Brodie says in Barbara Kopple’s “Shooting the Truth,” Andersen nonetheless continues “not because [he] wanted to embarrass anybody, but because [he] wanted to tell the truth” and felt a responsibility to the public and the planet we share. And now that I’m facing a personal crisis to become vegan, Cowspiracy appears to be an effective exposé.
It’s tricky to unify the three documentaries, but if I had to identify a common element of successful truth-telling, I would say that the films faithfully tell the stories of credible protagonists. In “Sorriest Spectacle: The Titicut Follies,” Richard Schickel writes, “When we enter [Titicut Follies’] microcosm, we cannot forget that its ‘actors’ are there to stay, trapped forever in their own desperate inventions. The knowledge that they cannot wipe-off their makeup, hang up their costumes, and stroll over to Sardi’s for a drink is what gives the film a power more forceful than any artifice can grant.” (461) Likewise, the men in Desert Migration are actors in the beautiful and tragic story of their own lives, and therefore we trust their curated perspectives. With a story that stays true to the “common man”-protagonist-director’s personal journey, Cowspiracy brings it home, reminding all of us that the Earth is our stage, and it is up to us to act responsibly NOW if we want to avert a tragic ending to our story IRL.
This final insight – commitment to an authentic portrayal of a personal journey – resonates with me. Joe Berlinger, co-director of the influential Paradise Lost trilogy, calls it experiential filmmaking, in which you share “your emotional truth” as a proxy for audiences to enter into the story you personally experienced. He edits his films to honestly parallel the unfolding narratives that he has experienced in real life, stories that “can’t be reduced to black and white” and “have multiple sides to them.” Like Andersen and Berlinger, I want to welcome stories into my life that personally challenge me, that I can then invite others into. This experiential filmmaking would require me to actively process my own POV, recognize my biases, and develop a compelling conclusion about the human condition, all in real-time. By keeping track of my own interaction with the story, I hope to develop a clear vision of how to appropriately incorporate my voice into my capstone project.