Documentaries at the EIFF

Feature by Natalia Baal | 15 Aug 2007

Can documentaries tell us the truth? Natalia Baal discusses the fine line between fact and fiction, and explores the art of the “the creative treatment of actuality”

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) boasts, amongst a variety of films concerned with both fiction and fact, a new film by Canadian filmmakers Deborah Melnyk and Rick Caine called Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore. The film, as the title suggests, looks at the life and work of the portly American Oscar winner, revealing the extent to which he manipulates the facts for the sake of entertainment, and concern for the size of his pocket.

Imitating his own tactics, Manufacturing Dissent asks Moore repeatedly and to little avail for an interview, at one point even telling a white lie in order to attend a conference he was speaking at. Interestingly and ironically, the man who is often credited with instigating the change in people’s attitudes towards documentary films, and is a high profile supporter of freedom of speech, is displayed as a hypocrite: a man who can’t take a taste of his own medicine.

Whatever the truth about the extent to which Moore himself manipulates and even fabricates the material in his works, this film raises a crucial and fascinating point that can be applied to documentaries more generally. How far can a film communicate the truth about its chosen subject matter, whether it be trivial or profound, and indeed should this ‘objective’ truth even be the maker’s concern?

A lesser known fact about the EIFF is that it started in 1947 exclusively as a documentary film festival, only later expanding to include fiction films. But this year there is as strong a presence as ever of documentaries from all over the world. These include To Die in Jerusalem (Hilla Medalia), an Israeli film which sees two mothers from either side of the conflict meet after the tragic deaths of their children; Run Granny Run (Marlo Poras), which follows a 94 year old Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock running as the Democrat’s New Hampshire candidate for Senate; Flying - Confessions of a Free Woman (Jennifer Fox), an honest and personal story of the filmmaker herself and the women that she meets around the world; and even the absurd Doubletime (Stephanie Johnes), which looks at the competitive world of skipping.

Although it is difficult to pin-point exactly when the first one was made, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is generally credited as the first feature length documentary; with John Grierson often cited as the man who coined the phrase in a review of Flaherty’s later film Moana (1926), commenting on its “documentary value.” This, and cinematic movements such as the Russian ‘Kino Pravda’ (Film-Truth) and the later French ‘cinéma vérité’, clearly emphasised the importance of truthful reportage and the communication of accurate information. But these days most self-respecting cinema-goers who watch modern notorieties such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, or even one of television’s vast array of ‘factual’ programmes, are fully aware that what they are viewing is opinion rather than objective truth.

Clearly we hope that none of the items on the EIFF’s documentary programme have been subjected to the sort of ‘editing’ and fabrication that Moore apparently practises. But even if they were, festival panels are always more likely to praise the class of film and the originality of the filmmaker, rather than the accuracy of the information they receive. It is clearly important not to overlook the distinction between an informed opinion and a one-sided rant, but it is the quality of documentaries and their makers which makes them intriguing; namely that they are opinionated, artistic, and at their best revealing and inspiring. John Grierson once defined documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” and it certainly is their creative aspects that are of interest - their use of the medium of film to tell a story - otherwise we might as well visit the library.

So, as the EIFF whirs into action again, unfortunately some who attend screenings of the documentaries on offer will probably care too much about the accuracy of  information. And as the huge popularity of Moore’s films show, even if a filmmaker is exposed as taking liberties with the truth, cinema-goers will continue to flock to his films. As we work our way through the EIFF’s documentary programme, Grierson’s famous definition still remains poignant, and Maufacturing Dissent might provide an eye-opening starting point.