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 ...

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Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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