Marathon Man: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

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The Clarion Content is delighted to have been able to send three different representatives of three different age groups and experience levels to cover the amazing Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in our own Durham, NC.

 So this week we are thrilled to bring you articles from a thoughtful veteran journalist, a hip up-and-coming  filmmaker, and one of our brilliant young interns.

 First up, Paul Deblinger.

Paul Deblinger

Paul Deblinger

 Deblinger has spent a lifetime in the media business, from a youth interning at The Washington Post, then editing The Penny Dreadful at Bowling Green (which went on to become the Mid-American Review,)  to years writing a horse racing column, and covering the Minneapolis sports beat as a local AP stringer, to publishing  a travel guide, and a more recent run in Durham culminating in a certificate from the Center for Documentary Studies and a coterie of projects in the works. (Including, we hear whispers, the beginnings of a Molly’s Minstrels documentary.)

 A man about town, we met him at the fabulous Carrack-Mercury Studio salons. His and Jeanne Hillson’s satiric homage to an invented Durham Rock ‘n Roll band “DB&WW”  was exhibited as part of Mercury Studio’s PIN Durham project.

 We are delighted to welcome Deblinger to the pages of the Clarion Content. We hope that he is a regular contributor. He surely raises our game.

His fabulous piece about the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival delves into the delicate rhetorical and literal dance, along the shimmering, shifting border between truth and fiction in film. Documentary film is neither Reality TV, dramatic cinema, nor the nightly news. Where does it fall on that continuum? How should we regard it? These are some of the critical issues Deblinger debates in his challenging essay, “Marathon Man: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.”

The Clarion Content encourages your comments. Please extend the discussion and leave a reply at the end of this column.

Marathon Man: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

by Paul Deblinger

I have never run a marathon, so I can only imagine that the cinematic equivalent is attending a documentary film festival.  Durham’s annual Full Frame Documentary Film  Festival requires the same type of endurance to watch so many provocative and compelling films in such a short time.

Film festivals attract cinephiles who don’t have to be told what a movie is supposed to do. Or do they?

As a medium, film occupies its own unique niche in the arts as well as in our imagination. When we watch a film we conveniently forget that we watch a series of still images passing before our eyes at 24 frames per second. It is not our eyes that produce the motion, it is a trick in our brains. By the time the impulse of a frame of film travels the optic nerve between our eyes and our brain other images are piling up behind it–our brain is simply too slow, so we think we are seeing motion.

In watching a one-hour film, our eyes take in 86,400 images which our brain processes into a continuous moving montage. When Plato wrote about Forms in the Allegory of the Cave, did he anticipate crowds of people watching shadows on screens? He was among the first philosophers to theorize about the essence of reality between material things and shadows. If people chained in a  cave could only see shadows, was that, in essence, their reality?

As part of the recently run 2013 Full Frame Documentary Festival, director Amir Bar-Lev curated a collection of films under the banner “Stories about Stories” which calls into question many things we take for granted about documentary films. We tend to build a large wall between what we call “narrative” film and documentary film and that wall is called truth. Bar-Lev’s selection of astonishing films tears down the wall.

Bar-Lev poses serious questions about documentary films. Are documentaries a subset of journalism? Are they truthful? Do they need to be truthful? What happens when the film maker’s presence in the film alters the reality of the film itself?

He assembled a strong collection of films to illustrate this problem including two of his own films Fighter (2000) and My Kid Could Paint That (2007). I saw those two films and previously saw two of the other films presented in series: F for Fake (1975) and Borat (2006).

All four films illustrate the practice of inserting an “instigator” into the documentary to provoke effect. In Fighter Bar-Lev brings in the novelist and Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig to accompany his friend Jann Weiner in retracing Weiner’s flight to freedom from Prague to escape the Nazis.  As the film rolls on, Lustig overwhelms Weiner’s story as if he is writing Weiner into his own version of the story which was his original motivation to take part in the journey.

When Weiner doesn’t cooperate Lustig challenges his veracity, his morals and even suggests that his adventure might have been the result of happenstance more than courage. As Weiner becomes angrier and angrier, the film finally explodes when Weiner walks away, refuses to talk to Lustig, effectively shutting down the film.

That’s when the voyeuristic viewer of the film realizes that the intruder is not Lustig but the filmmaker who chained the two of them together for the purpose of making his film.

Borat uses a similar technique in inserting an actor–Sacha Baron Cohen, to play the role of Borat,  a reporter from Kazakstan making a documentary about America.  The trip is real, the people depicted in the film are real, the situations are real, but Borat is a fictional character. So what is real?

Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That starts out as a straightforward documentary about a four-year-old child prodigy who has painted Abstract Expressionist paintings to critical acclaim and blossoming sales. When 60 Minutes airs a story questioning the child’s role in creating the paintings, the film shifts dramatically and the filmmaker enters the film to question the parents about the veracity of the story.

Bal-Lev said he began the film with no thoughts at all that the father may have taken more of a role in producing the paintings, but it is clear in the film that the once tight relationship between the film maker and the subjects totally deteriorates as the implication grows. As in Fighter, the film ends with cameras turned off and the two parties marching in opposite directions.

F is For Fake (1975) is Orson Welles final complete film with Welles playing himself in a convoluted framework of threads, some real, some made up, and some falling in between. The film deals with art forgery, Cliiford Irving’s Howard Hughes hoax biography and an assortment of staged events in the imaginative way only Welles can create.

Another film I saw at the 2013 Full Frame Festival was not part of Bar-Lev’s collection but could have been, R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton’s The World According to Dick Cheney. The film, which will be aired on HBO, is a straightforward biography of Dick Cheney’s early troubled life (arrests for DUI, kicked out of Yale twice)his academic redemption,  rise to power and retirement. It features a supposedly unbridled interview with Cheney where he offers his view of situations we all know too well including the impetus for the Iraq War: Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Only a visitor from another planet or someone waking from a 15-year coma would view the film as an American success story: the rise of a miscreant to the most powerful vice president in American history who led the liberation of Iraq from the evil Hussein.

We all know Cheney was the man behind the curtain, the liar of Oz. In the film Cheney insists the information about WMDs was true and the context and actions were not based on lies as if his mere presence in the film will assuage our distaste for him.

Which brings to mind a slim book simply titled On Bullshit by the noted Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt who differentiates between lies and bullshit, where liars know the truth while bullshitters don’t have any use for it, they just want to advance their own agenda at any cost. Sound familiar, Dick Cheney? Or the Mitt Romney campaign official who proclaimed: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

As Bar-Lev writes in his Full Frame program essay: documentary film makers blend the tools of journalism with the narrative structure and devices of feature films. He suggests that when film makers insert themselves into the film, the audience is aware of that a story is being told, in effect, seeing the man behind the curtain.

So, do documentary films live in the country of bullshit, pushed along by either an artistic, social or political agenda?  They all seem to want to get at the truth, but is the truth readily apparent at all times?

Another film screened at Full Frame but not part of Bar-Lev’s program was Robert Stone’s provocative Pandora’s Promise(2013) which strongly advocates the use of nuclear energy. Aimed at converting left-wing environmentalists, the film features prominent experts who changed sides in the debate and repeat their message over and over again: that it is actually anti-environmental to oppose nuclear energy in favor of what they claim as expensive and ineffective, renewable energy sources like solar and wind which, in the end, extend the use of coal and oil.

Stone isn’t ashamed to compare the number of deaths attributed to coal (millions from bad air) with the number of deaths from nuclear (supposedly few). He minimizes the damage done by Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island even showing his advocates walking around with some kind of radiation measurement tool. New, supposed safer technologies for reactors, fuel and waste would render those old accidents impossible anyway.

The film doesn’t hold back: Stone’s point of view, corroborated by the experts he presents and the statistics he cites, is right and environmentalists are wrong. The unequivocal position of the film was even one-upped by Stone himself during a Q&A following the film’s showing at Full Frame.

Nuclear energy is a complicated technology tied to an almost universal belief that nuclear energy is too close a cousin to nuclear weapons to be safe.

If the definition of bullshit according to Frankfurt is a disregard for the truth in pursuit of a single-minded objective then Pandora’s Promise fits the bill. Sometimes the absence of facts alters the truth in the same way false or misleading facts do.  While it is a well-made and effective film, Stone does not offer countervailing viewpoints and also leaves out at least one major argument: the issue of security and nuclear energy.

Stone points out in the film that the CIA has indentified 59 countries with the ability to produce nuclear weapons but only nine possess them now–indicating a disinterest in nuclear weapons. However, in recent years, so-called rogue nations such as North Korea, Iran and Syria either have developed or were trying to develop nuclear weapons. Poised over their shoulders are terrorist organizations also seeking nuclear material that don’t neatly fit into the CIA’s research.

Nuclear energy demands the type of security not associated with other energy sources. It’s not just the power plants that require security, it’s fuel processing, transportation and waste that also require extra measures.  Stone doesn’t even mention security nor the difficulty of tracking nuclear material around the world, especially in the former Soviet states.

Pandora’s Promise is a slickly produced, expensive film that elicits that old suspension of disbelief. Based on the Q&A of Pandora’s Promise, Stone produced quite a few converts. After all, France produces 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power and now exports energy. The hand of the film maker is not visible in the film other than in the strong production values and the carefully crafted interviews. The man behind the curtain stays behind the curtain. What is scary is that the truth probably lies somewhere between an all-out endorsement of nuclear power and our continuing patronage of big oil, but Stone doesn’t let us into that borderland.

It’s not just documentary films that face the problems of veracity, it’s the printed word, radio, TV,  theatrical productions and online media. Ask Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life about truth and fact checking. When Mike Daisey aired his iPhone China story on TAL, Glass spent a good chunk of a subsequent show castigating Daisey and apologizing for dropping the fact-checking ball.

That show sparked an intense argument, which when digested seems to have come down to the notion that when Daisey does his show on stage, it’s theater and he has artistic license, but when it’s on a show like This American Life, truth is paramount. Perhaps the disembodied voice of Daisey on the radio makes it harder for us to see that he is a storyteller and he is telling us, well, stories. We can’t see the man behind the curtain or even the curtain itself.

So, where does that place documentary film? Instructors at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, which owns  Full Frame, spend a lot of time in classes discussing the ethics and liabilities of documentarians. How people are depicted in film and what they are asked to do is as old as documentary film itself: take a look at the classic Nanook of the North (1922), a silent film complete with staged scenes and confused identities.

Film is a powerful medium, the weapon of mass indoctrination for the propagandist. The power of the moving image does what other media can never hope to accomplish. When coupled with a powerful storyteller, it simply overwhelms reality.

Amir Bar-Lev pulled together a bold and engaging program where we get delicious views behind the curtain of film making itself. When a film maker calls into question his medium’s own veracity, you have to give him extra credit for courage.

In the end, the documentary genre flows into an amorphous blend of all kinds of film from the propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl to the obvious objectivity of cinema verite. The Full Frame Documentary Festival effectively pulls together a wide range of moving images that challenge viewers to the extreme. And when you sit through so many films you can’t help but think that Marshall McLuhan was well ahead of his time in 1964 when he suggested “the medium is the message.” I think Full Frame and Amir Bar-Lev would tend to agree.

For me, next year I will attempt a personal best in the next version of the Full Frame marathon.

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Clarion Content is a Durham-based online magazine that curates and creates the thriving culture that gives our city its identity. Our community building is only as strong as our collective contributions. Our team of curators welcomes your comments, suggestions, and concerns. We are open to all points of view, especially those that challenge and therefore stimulate our own. We also encourage reader submitted material as well as guest columnists. See something cool, outrageous, outlandish, or important? Have a great cause? Send us a note or stop by our offices at the Mothership, 401 West Geer Street inside the MotorCo complex.

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