In the age of alternative facts, decoding truth in documentary

The emcee of the live game show hoped to crowdsource his way to a revelation.

“Make some noise if you think the film is true," the host, Brian Babylon of National Public Radio, egged on audience members. They cheered loudly.

"And make some noise if you think it's bogus as ..." he said, to even more whooping.

The crowd had gathered at a college-town music venue late on a Saturday night for "Gimme Truth," an event dedicated to the playful exploration of media veracity. They were at True/False, a film festival dedicated to, well, the playful — and at times not so playful — exploration of media veracity. For both points and pride, audience members and a panel of documentarians (including "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James) were seeking to determine whether short films created for the occasion were nonfiction or invented — documentaries or fake news.

"Everything is plausible," Babylon said after the screening of one short. "But did it really happen‎?"

Documentary is the most hybrid of media creations. Lacking the full-blown invention of scripted movies but also the hard-knuckled reality of broadcast news, it occupies a more powerful in-between. Like scripted film, it has the power to suspend assumptions and persuade us into new beliefs. But it does so without asking us to leave reality behind; documentary actively wants to shape our world and increase its comprehensibility.

True/False has long been preoccupied with questions of honesty and reality. Founded by Columbia natives David Wilson and Paul Sturtz in 2004, the four-day film festival has evolved into the country’s premiere documentary venue, its trends taking root here and devolving to pop culture the way fashion styles migrate from the runway to the bargain bin. Every March, Oscar-winning filmmakers like Laura Poitras, Roger Ross Williams and Alex Gibney head to this curated gathering and –with every game show, screening, party and monologue performance—probe issues of truth and falsehood.

Those themes vibrated in a new way at this year's event, held last weekend. At a time of fake news and alternative facts, when inflated inauguration numbers and presidential wiretapping are presented as plausible scenarios — as interpretations ‎of reality rather than reimaginings of it — the very subject of documentary elicits charged questions.

How should arbiters of truth treat leaders who openly flout the idea? Do they have a greater responsibility to be more factual — moving away from subjective tendencies — when politics twist and distort?

Should modern tolls such as characters and storytelling be deemphasized as facts grow more important? Or should they be leaned on more heavily?

Will Americans in the Trump era look to documentary like a seasick passenger looks to the horizon: as a stabilizing reference point?

At bottom, what are the obligations of documentarians to be truthful in the age of alternative facts? And how influential, in the fog of fakery, can they even be?

“There’s a certain sobriety in the air,” Sturtz said. “We’re sorting out what the very idea of documentary means when every civic, cultural and political asset feels like it’s under assault.”

NOT WHAT IT APPEARS

Unless you’re a part of the exterminator community, “Rat Film” would not appear to be a movie that contends with urgent issues.

A free-associative meditation on the rat problem in Baltimore (the movie opens with cellphone footage of one rodent trying and failing to escape a city garbage can), it would seem to fall into the category of the marginal quirky.

But a closer look at Theo Anthony’s debut, which premiered at True/False, reveals a more socially conscious movie. By tracing how the rat problem has historically been handled in a largely segregated city, “Rat Film” subtly politicizes the rodents, painting a damning portrait of discrimination. The rat becomes a symbol (with coy reference to Richard Wright’s “Native Son”) of black-white oppression in the city.

“I have a lot of issues with the standard talking-head documentary format,” Anthony said at the festival. "This idea that you’ve presented a problem that must be solved in the confines of a film feels like a really authoritarian structure.”

Coming at the problem head-on, in other words, can be less interesting, and less effective, than tackling issues slyly and allegorically.

In an interview Anthony laid out why more traditional documentaries could pose moral challenges as well.

“I have problems with a lot of documentaries about social issues. I think they put forth this really hierarchical understanding of the world that just replaces one hegemony of power with another,” he said. “Even the most socially conscious political documentaries, their progressive messages are betrayed by really conservative forms that don’t lead us to question how things are structured or delivered. You can’t just be focused on a ‘good’ message. If you’re watching an incredible piece on a Syrian refugee on the nightly news and you’re consuming it like you consume your take-home dinner it’s not doing anything, it’s not bringing us closer to anything. It’s a bait-and-switch—an illusion of intimacy when it’s really just a slick consumer package.”

This move to ambiguity and deliberate murkiness is a modern shift. A form that once saw the unfiltered vérité of Pennebaker, Wiseman‎ and the Maysles Bros. began, in the 1990s and 2000s, to morph into a blunter instrument, from the polemics of Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza, to the entertainment-minded uplift of competition documentaries.

But in recent years documentary has expanded to places of greater sophistication and subtlety. That took particular expression at True/False this year, which saw a back-to-basics return to vérité; the emergence of animated and other newish additions; ;and even the so-called meta-documentary, as pieces like “Casting JonBenet” foreground the filmmaking process itself.

Nowhere is this doc-world diversity more evident than in Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro,” a work as much of formal imagination as social relevance that has improbably now topped $5 million at the box office. Documentary had once been thought of as a genre. Now it’s nearly as diverse as scripted film.

That new cleverness can be found in unlikely places. Even a more straight-ahead year-in-the-life snapshot, like Amanda Lipitz’s “Step,” a True/False movie about an all-girls black high school in Baltimore, contains those elements; what seems to be a candy-coated empowerment tale is framed against the backdrop of the death of Baltimore man Freddie Gray while in police custody, lending it more social resonance.

But is ambiguity enough in the Trump era? Documentary’s ability to shape perception is unparalleled — just ask the NRA after "Bowling for Columbine" or the EPA after "An Inconvenient Truth." But can new forms of documentary have the same effect?

“I like ambivalence. I didn't want to give answers,” said Viktor Jakovleski, director of the observational film “Brimstone & Glory”, about a Mexican town that builds a dangerous type of fireworks. His film, produced by the team behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is either a prideful account of local culture or an indictment of a value system that leads to such desperation. But by not judging either way, it can makes the audience's conclusion that much more powerful.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more vociferous advocacy films because of Trump,” James, known for his race-themed journalistic portrayals, said in an interview. “Do I think that will be a good thing? I don’t want to tell anyone they shouldn’t go out and make a passionate film. But if you make a film in a way that keeps in mind the people who don't agree with you — if you address their concerns — you can reach the people whose minds you want to change.”

FLIPPING EXPECTATIONS

“Edith + Eddie” starts out feeling like an inspirational story. A black woman and white man find each other, and love, in their mid-90s. But as the couple is separated due to a legal battle, what could have been a life-affirming hug turns into something darker: an indictment of the elder-care system, with racial undertones. One is meant to leave the theater feeling anger at the forces that drove them apart.

“I thought it was going to be this uplifting story,” said director Laura Checkoway, a print journalist turned documentarian. "But as we were shooting it became clearer something else was happening that I strongly felt needed to be shown.”

Subjectivity has been an important force for nonfiction filmmakers, as they shape their work in ways that let you know which side of a complicated story they’re on. In that sense the administration’s notion of alternative facts doesn’t like opposition to documentarians — it takes a page from them. If you can see everything through the prism of your own lens, then who is anyone to invalidate that? If you believe a president wiretapped your phone, isn't putting it out there not fiction but just a type of subjective nonfiction? Doublespeak and relativism aren't opposites--they're cousins.

“The uncomfortable question of modern documentaries,” said the fest’s Wilson, “is this dark flip side of what we call the 'muddy truth.'”

Americans in this Trump era could become so overwhelmed by talk of news and fake news and fake fake news they simply could start tuning out all nonfiction. The best choice a director might make is simply to put their cameras in places they haven't typically been.

“Strong Island,” “The Force,” “Whose Streets?” and “Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?,” all at True/False, each are post-Ferguson movies dealing in some way with the justice system and questionable deaths of black men . Though all were made preelection, their portrayal of an America many of us don't see offer a sharp retort to the current politics of demonization. The best way to cut through the fog of fakery might not be to point out the weather system — it's to diligently take a different kind of temperature.

“I’ve been told my whole life about truths that aren’t accurate,” said Damon Davis, the African American co-director of “Whose Streets?,” about Ferguson, near his hometown of St. Louis. “The idea that we shouldn’t listen to them isn’t new for me. All I can do is show people what I think is the truth.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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