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Documentary film, artifice, and truth


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At The New Inquiry, Brandon Harris writes about the nonfiction film series “Art of the Real” currently taking place at the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York. Through films by Agnes Varda, Harun Farocki, and promising younger filmmakers, the series demonstrates that, as Harris writes, “in the best documentary films, artifice isn’t an obstacle to truth, it’s a way in.” Harris continues:

The great irony of so-called nonfiction cinema is that it is often more willfully deceptive, in its form if not its content, than fiction filmmaking. The skills required to sell the audience on a version of reality in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking are all ultimately at the service of illusion and deceit, sleight of hand and the flick of a wand. As non-fiction techniques have come to dominate television programming since the late 90s, audiences have become as increasingly used to the time compression and sequence reordering. They’ve grown accustomed to editing cues that inform us of “winner” and “loser” narratives as Colson Whitehead recently put it. Yet by filming often underrepresented subjects in their natural habitats, by reenacting past events that are purported to have happened, the serious documentary filmmaker hasn’t necessarily moved any closer to truth than the reality TV carnival barker. In our second great irony, the documentaries that grasp literal truths and create emotional ones are those that are mindful and conscious of the lies they must tell us to do so.

Read Brandon Harris’ piece at the New Inquiry website. “Art of the Real” runs through April 26.

Above image: Still from What Farocki Taught