Standing in ankle-deep snow, Peter Lynch, director of Project Grizzly, had a vision he wanted to portray. The documentary he was filming focused on Troy Hurtubise, a self-professed mountain man whose quest was to find a grizzly bear and grapple with it, wearing a handmade suit of armour. Rather than following Hurtubise around for weeks or months-an expensive endeavour his budget couldn’t cover-Lynch planned a 15 day film shoot in Banff, Alberta, that would tell of Hurtubise’s search and explore mythological aspects of Canadiana. Lynch wanted his film to be true to his subject’s mountain man image. So when Hurtubise emerged from his tent and lathered himself for a shave, Lynch had no qualms about agreeing to shoot what followed. Taking his hunting knife, Hurtubise dragged it along his face, continuing until he appeared clean-shaven. What Lynch had chosen not to film, however, was Hurtubise shaving himself with a Bic razor only moments before.
Lynch is one of many documentary filmmakers who emphasize drama in their documentaries more than factual truth. But commonplace as dramatic techniques may be, their use is debated within the documentary community. Filmmakers who approach documentaries from the cinematic tradition embrace dramatic technique as a valuable tool in storytelling. But filmmakers who approach documentaries as a purely journalistic vehicle object to the use of drama, saying that it clouds facts and confuses viewers. Still, it’s evident from newsmagazine and documentary shows that even journalistic documentaries are using dramatic techniques more and more. The problem arises, journalist filmmakers say, when the audience can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s fiction. It’s true that strictly journalistic documentaries make a point of letting viewers know when they are using dramatic techniques, like recreated scenes, while cinematic documentary filmmakers don’t think that’s necessary. In theory, a purely journalistic documentary aims to witness unfolding events. A cinematic documentary filmmaker, however, takes liberties, feeling free to recreate events or insert symbolic scenes without labelling them as such. To Lynch, factual accuracy is less important than telling a good story. Deceiving viewers about what instrument Hurtubise used for shaving, says Lynch, isn’t as important as the image the documentary is trying to portray. For him, Hurtubise being portrayed as a mountain man is every bit as legitimate-and lots more entertaining-as Hurtubise sitting down, explaining his intentions in front of the camera. “It is a documentary in the sense that it’s a real story about a real character,” is how Lynch defends his decision.
Fact and fiction have been jostling for position ever since John Grierson-the pioneer of the British and North American documentary form and one of the founders of the National Film Board of Canada-was credited with coining the term “documentary film”. He first used it in a 1926 essay to describe Robert Flaherty’s, Moana, a 1926 film about the daily life of Samoan islanders. Flaherty was one of the first filmmakers to push the boundary between reality and dramatization. In his first film, the 1922 Nanook of the North, Flaherty had Nanook, an Inuit, perform certain daily tasks over and over again while being filmed. Although the tasks Flaherty shot were all ones Nanook really did daily, Flaherty scripted the scenes so the filmmaker could capture enough footage to recreate the events as if they were unfolding. In this sense, Flaherty’s film technique of capturing reality-which Grierson described as the creative treatment of reality-was the first of its kind. Before Flaherty, events had long been filmed in a simple straightforward manner in newsreels-ever since the Lumi?re brothers of France invented the cin?matographie in March 1895. The newsreel provided a graphic, eyewitness account that print couldn’t match. It showed actual events in plain terms without bias or a point of view. Although the genre has become extinct, newsreels were popular in the late 1920s and 1930s and provided a foundation for other nonfiction forms, such as broadcast news reports and editorial documentaries.
Over time, the plain and prosaic evolved and nondramatic documentary film techniques began to develop. One of the more influential of these was cin?ma v?rit?, popular in the 1960s. Direct cinema also caught on around this time. Although both techniques depict reality as it actually happens, direct cinema (which has its roots in cin?ma v?rit?) takes things one step further, removing the filmmaker from the situation entirely. This means no narration and a third-person tone. News coverage on TV began to change. Lindalee Tracey, a documentary filmmaker who directed the 1997 film Invisible Nation about illegal immigrants in Canada which aired on TVOntario, surmises that journalism became involved in documentaries when The Journal, the CBC public affairs program that ran from 1982 until 1992, began to style its news stories in a documentary fashion, using techniques like cin?ma v?rit?. Viewers grew accustomed to a stylish presentation of stories, complete with factual accuracy.
Mary Ellen Armstrong, editor of RealScreen, a trade magazine for documentary filmmakers, also believes that viewers tend to think of documentaries and news in the same category. During the 1960s, factually accurate documentaries commissioned by the NFB were used in schools as part of the curriculum. Viewers naturally came to consider documentaries as “true”. Even today that expectation exists. In the 1993 documentary series, Constructing Reality, produced by the NFB, students and teachers are asked what they consider a documentary to be. Many answer that they consider a documentary to be, as one teacher puts it, a “nonfiction subject treated in a nondramatic way or for the purpose of informing.” When another teacher is asked if a documentary would affect her in a different way if she found out that it contained actors, she replied that yes, she would because the “people are actors and just playing a role and it isn’t reality so it doesn’t emit the same kind of feeling.” Barbara Mainguy, editor of POV (for point of view), a trade magazine for independent filmmakers, thinks the whole debate about the use of dramatic techniques in documentaries is so lively because people feel cheated and pissed off when they feel lied to.
Over the past five years, with the proliferation of cable specialty channels, documentaries have been growing in popularity. Discovery Channel, a science and nature station that relies mostly on documentaries to fill its schedule, was voted the most-watched specialty channel by television viewers in 1997. More broadcasters are willing to feature documentaries than ever before. In the past, CBC rarely showed documentaries. If it did commission one, it was usually produced in-house. Today, the Newsworld series Rough Cuts airs 22 to 26 one-hour documentaries by independent filmmakers each year. Even filmmakers are jumping in. “A few years ago, everybody had a feature film script in their back pocket.” says Gordon Henderson, a senior producer of CBC’s upcoming Canadian history series and an independent filmmaker. “Now everybody seems to have a documentary.” With interest in documentaries growing, filmmakers are eager to experiment with different techniques, such as dramatic scenes, to create engaging stories that entice viewers.
The controversy comes to a head when filmmakers and broadcasters-even the Senate-try to predict how sophisticated the viewer is in interpreting fictional elements in a generally nonfictional genre. Trina McQueen, president of Discovery Channel, believes that viewers-sophisticated or not-deserve mostly factual programming. She commissions and buys only documentaries that follow a certain code of ethics. She looks for mainstream documentaries that focus more on the journalistic and less on the cinematic. “You have to have the trust of the viewer, and once you break that bond you are very much in trouble. A film is truthful if what it says to the viewer is what actually happened in filmmaking.” Mark McInnis, the executive producer of documentaries at CTV, shows only factually correct documentaries and agrees that viewers must be aware of what sections in a documentary are dramatically recreated. However, Rudy Buttignol, creative head of documentaries for TVO, does show docs with dramatic elements.
It’s not surprising that Brendan Christie, an assistant editor and senior writer at RealScreen, thinks that broadcasters use a “cookie cutter” approach when commissioning. Most, he says, use the same format and cover the same range of topics. Christie believes viewers are more savvy than broadcasters give them credit for.
Even when they do grasp what’s accurate and what’s not, they don’t always like documentaries to combine the two. In 1992, the CBC commissioned the war series The Valour and the Horror, directed by Brian and Terence McKenna. It was very controversial for many reasons, among them whether its use of dramatic techniques was ethical. The complaint was that the dramatic segments involving actors quoting memoirs, reading letters of the dead, and reenacting battle scenes were factually misleading and poorly researched. In May 1993, Brian McKenna defended his use of dramatic techniques in front of the Senate subcommittee on veterans affairs, stating: “To bring the stories home, even more powerfully, we decided to take the letters and stories of the men and women who fought and bring them to life employing the skills of professional actors. The central reason for this technique was to communicate to the new generations of viewers that inside the old men with blue tams and clinking medals are the young men who went to war.” The Senate saw things differently. “Even when the words spoken by actors accurately reflect the historical record, bias and misinterpretation can easily be manipulated in dramatic scenes through facial expression or tone of voice…. While the blending of drama and documentary may be more entertaining for the average viewer, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction and ultimately misleads the audience.”
Still, some documentaries do contain dramatic recreations that clearly don’t mislead the viewer. Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line is a classic example of how dramatic recreations and facts can marry and still form a documentary that isn’t misinterpreted. The film explores the events surrounding the 1976 shooting death of a police officer. Throughout the film, the dramatic recreation of the officer getting shot is used over the over again, but what is real and what is reenacted is obvious. During reenactments the picture is distinctly grainier, with exaggerated close-ups of people and of objects. Morris also uses such cinematic techniques as slow motion and repetition; the police officer twirls around and falls again and again after getting shot.
Although Morris could have told the story using just interviews and archival documents such as court transcripts, he wanted to create a film that was not just credible but engaging. And to produce something engaging, cinematic documentary filmmakers feel they shouldn’t be constricted by precise renderings of reality. Lindalee Tracey’s major complaint with journalistic documentaries is that they try to be balanced rather than developing a point of view. Even Morris hates to be called a “documentary filmmaker” because of the images the term conjures up. In the April 1989 Washington Journalism Review, Morris said that “one of the things I loathe about many documentary films is that they come off as some bad species of journalism-that one doesn’t feel the filmmaker behind the film?. The idea that somehow you’re a slave to reality in making a nonfiction film-I don’t think that’s true at all. What you are is in an odd relationship to reality.”
Odd or not, Morris does manage to produce work that is entertaining and credible. What makes that possible is that “people’s words aren’t being manipulated,” says Barri Cohen, advising editor of POV magazine and a documentary filmmaker. “He uses different means, like a palate, to express that truth. The question isn’t whether it ceases to be a documentary. The question is whether it’s expanded as a documentary.”
Lindalee Tracey agrees. In her own films, she employs dramatic techniques to supplement the facts. InInvisible Nation she uses shots of people from different ethnic origins standing in different outdoor settings. She filmed one East Indian businessman, for instance, facing the camera in front of a downtown office tower. In another shot, an Asian man, his chest naked, holds a spade, also facing the camera. She wanted to show that a variety of people make up our country’s mosaic. Tracey sees documentaries as a form with artistic licence. Although they are based on facts, those facts can be arranged to affect the viewer. Using dramatic techniques is almost a necessity, she says, because the attention span of the average viewer is becoming shorter. “It’s not good enough just to be ‘worthy’ anymore, because frankly, people don’t know what worthy is”-viewers want to watch something that’s entertaining, but informative as well. Deceiving the viewer isn’t a concern for Tracey because she uses dramatic techniques judiciously in her works-only, she says, when her research supports them.
Still, scrupulous research doesn’t always justify the use of dramatic techniques. In 1998, the BBC revealed that the famed marine biologist and filmmaker, Jacques Cousteau, had staged some underwater scenes in his nature documentaries. In one, some former crew members later confessed, Cousteau taped footage of an octopus scrambling out of a tank and hopping overboard. What the viewer didn’t see was that Cousteau had poured bleach into the tank before he started filming.
Howard Bernstein, a former executive producer of news and current affairs at the CBC and a broadcasting instructor at Ryerson Polytechnic University, finds Cousteau’s deception indefensible. He believes that it’s entirely possible for a documentary to be interesting without containing any staged dramatic elements.
One good example is the CBC-commissioned documentary Warrendale, about an institution for emotionally disturbed children. Directed by Allan King in 1965, it was the most well-known documentary of its time for its use of cin?ma v?rit?. Famed for its gritty portrayal of the children, the film was made without directing the children or staff, without narration and without King’s telling the camera operator where to point the hand-held camera. Without a single planned scene, Warrendale made for riveting footage, documenting the emotional roller-coaster that the children went through and the staff’s efforts to control the children’s outbursts.
Another notable example of a compelling nondramatic documentary was 1989’s Roger & Me, about the General Motors plant closing and layoffs in Flint, Michigan. In the film, director Michael Moore plays GM as the villain that brought down Flint’s economy. Mostly, the documentary was famed for its attack on a large corporation. In many ways, both films easily lent themselves to the nondramatic format-the subject matter simply suited the treatment. In Warrendale, young children swore and screamed while the staff struggled to hold on them-reality was dramatic. In Roger & Me, watching this David try to corner Goliath with wit and daring made for great unrehearsed entertainment
While Roger & Me attracted moviegoers to theatres, Warrendale languished unseen for 30 years. Its content was so raw and disturbing that the CBC-despite having commissioned the film-refused to air it. Then TVO’s Rudy discovered in conversation with Allan King that Warrendale had never been shown. Buttignol decided to broadcast the documentary in January 1997 and it became one of the station’s greatest rating successes, drawing 200,000 viewers. People flooded TVO with phone calls, saying they had enjoyed the documentary and wondering what had happened to the children and staff of Warrendale.
While Buttignol is a fan of this type of documentary, he’s less keen about those that use dramatic techniques-precisely because they can mislead viewers. Still, he does enjoy some of them, like Project Grizzly. TVO’s commitment to provide diverse programming leaves him “begrudgingly open to a challenge.” But Buttignol’s ambivalence reflects the conflicted nature of the whole debate. Because there are so many grey areas to the use of dramatic techniques, most filmmakers, broadcasters, and writers say they can only assess whether such techniques are justifiable on a case-by-case basis. Buttignol has developed a theory to explain the conflict in using dramatic elements. “In fiction, the filmmaker asks the audience to suspend their disbelief. The audience consciously knows that they have to forget that the actors are play-acting. In documentary, we do the opposite. We ask the audience never to suspend their disbelief. When you have documentary and dramatic scenes together, subconsciously these two ideas, these two preconditions, clash in the viewer’s mind.”
As vehemently as cinematic documentary filmmakers may defend dramatic techniques, even they agree on where to draw the line. All draw it clearly between their work and outright fabrication. Just last December, a British documentary called The Connection, which aired on CBC’s The Passionate Eye series and CBS’s 60 Minutes, drew controversy for faking a story on the Colombian heroin smuggling operation. Almost everything in the documentary turned out to be false: actors had posed as actual drug runners, settings were staged. The film’s key interviews-supposedly with the drug cartel boss and a mule smuggling heroin into Britain-were completely bogus. The deception didn’t go unnoticed and wasn’t tolerated. Carlton Communications broadcasting, which produced The Connection, had promised to refund all overseas broadcasters that purchased the film. It also returned the eight national and international awards the film had won.
While it’s easy to agree on cases like The Connection, ambiguity remains. Chances are that debate-about whether and in what cases dramatic techniques are justifiable-will continue without ever being resolved. Lindalee Tracey, for one, welcomes it. It’s vital, she says, to continue discussing the issue: “The notion that people can use the power of the media to tell lies is frightening and so possible that we have to stay vigilant.”