In a recent article in The New York Times, critic A. O. Scott writes about our “free-floating anxiety about stories that claim to be true,” particularly in documentary film and in shows like the recent HBO phenomenon The Jinx. As he points out, nonfiction filmmaking of late tends to “blend documentary and fictional methods in the simultaneous pursuit of art and truth.”
This blending has stirred up no little amount of audience and commentator handwringing, especially since, as Scott says, nonfiction filmmakers “have taken over some of the duties of print journalists, turning out profiles of interesting and famous people, works of reportage and advocacy on important social issues, and dispatches from exotic and overlooked places.” As such, these films have inherited some of the same anxieties we feel about reporters who make stuff up (as the recent film True Story illustrates), which is to say that we get tied up in knots when we realize the filmmakers are controlling our experience through cinematic techniques like editing, reenactments, and so on.
The trouble here is this: the difference between reporting and filmmaking, Scott argues, is that while some films aim mostly to do the work of journalism—to inform, with accuracy—others aspire to be “daring and original works of cinema,” which I think is to say that they want to be art. Great works of art, by nature, are not meant to be informational. They rely on imagination to give the viewer an aesthetic and often emotional experience.
Journalists aim to report the facts as accurately as possible, observing, taking notes, recording interviews, double- and triple-checking the details, and certainly not making ...1
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