The truth about documentaries

By Brenda Daniels

I enjoy watching film documentaries. There’s something about “true”/factual stories that make me feel my viewing time is worthwhile. But of course even documentaries are framed in ways that influence their message, and hence their viewers. In other words, they’re not objective. In some, the construction of the story is more obvious than in others.

Two documentaries I watched at the 2015 Durban International Film Festival provide an example of different levels of “interference” in their making and presentation.

(Dis)honesty – The Truth about Lies (By Yael Melamede)

This film was particularly interesting and showed the reasons people lie. A group of scientists, headed by Dan Ariely, do a number of tests on people to discover when they lie and why. Ariely explains the tests and their results to viewers and this narration is interspersed with interviews with people who have all been imprisoned for the consequences of their lies.

Ariely is an engaging, humorous and non-judgmental speaker. He describes how people lie or “fudge” for reasons such as personal gain or distance from the indiscretion, and how they (read we) actually lie, for example; by justifying their actions or identifying with a peer group who are doing the same. After watching this documentary I was left knowing for sure that lying is an all-pervasive human trait, and that we are all capable of lying to the extent of committing a crime.

The “framing” of this documentary certainly achieved its aim with me!

Atlantic (by Jan-Willem)

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Atlantic is a different documentary altogether. Styled as a “reality” show, it follows the story of a Moroccan fisherman, Fettah, who takes up windsurfing. Friendships with visiting Europeans, and a longing for his mother who died at sea when he was just a child, compel Fettah to embark on an unusual journey. He packs a backpack and sets off on a trip of hundreds of miles – using only his windsurfer as transport.

The filming and sparse Arabic narration is lyrical in quality. I admired the simplicity with which Fettah managed to live his life at sea and when he came ashore – just a bottle of water, a bag of nuts and a tiny tent seemed to sustain him. But towards the end he encounters difficulties and is left in a desperate situation. Will he survive? Well of course we know he must have – he was being filmed after all and was never as alone as the documentary would have us believe!

Whilst I enjoyed the actual story, the obvious “interference” in the filming process of Atlantic left me with some doubts about the truth of this documentary.


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