18 February 2011
  my beef with the faux documentary trend

this year three separate acclaimed documentaries have been accused in various ways of being unreal. i finally got around to watching one of them, banksy's oscar-nominated exit through the gift shop, last night, and i have to say i was extremely underwhelmed with the work as a documentary. i think the major problem for me with this movie emerged almost instantly as the film started rolling, as it seemed utterly impossible to me that anyone could possibly watch this movie and believe it were really happening. here's the (somewhat complicated problem) with the film, as best i can explain it:

the viewers of this film are told that we are watching the gradual unfolding of a film made by accidental documentarian-cum-street artist thierry guetta. in the beginning of the movie, guetta is just haphazardly filming street artists at work with no intention of using the film to make a documentary. it is only later that he actually decides to turn his work into a documentary about street art. NOW, why then is someone filming guetta filming street artists in the beginning if there is no intention of making a documentary at this point? later, after banksy is critical of guetta's filmmaking he ditches the camera and goes out to create a sort of ramshackle street art bazarre in an abandoned television studio. meanwhile, banksy stays behind, allegedly unaware of what guetta is up to, while he finishes the documentary himself. okay, then who is the one filming guetta while he is on this new mission? and how is it possible that banksy is surprised at the ultimate scale of guetta's "show?" it's allegedly HIS movie, so how could he not have known? how could he not have been the one filming? i mean, i think you absolutely HAVE to view this movie as the fictional work of some third party filmmaker who basically created the character of thierry guetta/mr. brainwash and either got someone to play the character of banksy or possibly got the real artist to portray himself. exit through the gift shop is simply/confusingly a mockumentary about the making of a documentary. that DOES NOT make it a documentary.

strangely i had a lot of the same problems with exit through the gift shop that i had with another of 2010's critically lauded documentaries: catfish. granted, i did actually really enjoy catfish and found it to be a much more entertaining work than gift shop, but i watched both films in complete disbelief from their beginnings. in catfish, viewers are told at the outset that the schulman brothers are making a documentary about nev's facebook friendship with a michigan family. it is extremely unlikely that the filmmakers would have wasted their energy on such a boring piece of subject matter. then, surprise, everything suddenly gets very interesting. either this was just an absolutely serendipitous turn of events for these young filmmakers or at least some aspects of the "documentary" were contrived.

now, why does any of this matter? i mean, is it really important to differentiate true documentary filmmaking from the faux variety? i would argue that even though the singular act of faking parts of a purported documentary does not automatically ruin it (and might sometimes, as in the case of catfish, elevate it) doing so and not revealing it could be ultimately damaging to the larger field of documentary filmmaking. that is, i think filmmakers like schulman brothers and the true unnamed director behind gift shop are treading a slippery slope by contributing to a growing culture of skepticism among viewers of documentaries. whereas there was once a time when documentaries were really respected for their ability to expose in a literally visual way certain sociopolitical truths that might only have existed up to that point on the black and white pages of newspapers, from here on out any film that seems too good, too revealing, too probing, too unbelievable to be true will automatically be questioned by its viewers as potentially made up. this will create problems for future documentarians who will have to choose whether or not to include footage in their work that might evoke skepticism from viewers but which are in fact simply brilliant and revealing pieces of filmmaking. i hope that this isn't necessarily the case, but i predict a shift, albeit perhaps a subtle one, in the kinds of documentaries that are released in the coming years. at the very least, i predict a shift in the way i watch documentaries.
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