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Documentary Filmmaking: When Lying Tells the Truth

By Zack Mandell  |  15-Feb-2013

It's a problem that seems to be shared by both quantum physics (a subject about which I know a ton, seriously) and documentary filmmaking - does the act of watching something change it in some fundamental way? How can someone act, react and respond "normally" to life when they're aware those actions, reactions and responses are being recorded? Are all human interest documentaries documenting nothing but affectation and artifice from its interviewees? Do any documentaries actually mirror back truth?

It's a question for the ages. It's also one that suffers from no lack of analysis and certainly doesn't enjoy comprehensive agreement among filmmakers, viewers and critics. However, there are some virtually universally agreed -upon rules considered entirely unambiguous and verboten for documentary -makers. Two of the most stringently adhered -to of those being: Never lie to or mislead subjects for the purpose of eliciting something from them, and: Never compromise editorial control of your project. And those do seem like safe, comprehensively -agreed -upon maxims that brook little room for debate. Life, though, is hardly ever that simple, as evidenced by the following films which wholly violate those apparent absolutes and (in my opinion) glean substantial truths by doing so.

The Movie: General Idi Amin Dada: A Self -Portrait (1974)
The Creator: Barbet Schroeder

Schroeder is a Franco -Swiss director who's shepherded a successful string of French and American films into production since he began working in 1969. His titles include the Charles Bukowski cringe -fest Barfly (cringe-worthy for its content rather than quality - it's worth watching), starring Mickey Rourke; the excellent Klaus Van Bulow murder biopic Reversal of Fortune (Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons); and he even directed an episode of Mad Men in 2009 (Season 3, Episode 12). In 1974, though, Schroeder made a seeming deal with the devil: in exchange for incredible access to the genocidal, supposed cannibal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, Schroeder would allow Amin some creative control of the biography, an Amin-approved version of the film and a look at the final cut.

Schroeder was initially roundly criticized for not only granting that level of jurisdiction to the subject of a biographical documentary but granting it to one of the most murderous leaders on the planet - literally the last person who should have any say in its production. However, the decision proved a masterstroke. After all, what would an unauthorized biography made without Amin's permission offer on the subject; that Idi Amin Dada was bad? The world was already well aware of that. By assuring Amin some editorial leverage Schroeder facilitated the dictator's opening up.

Amin's version of what he wanted Uganda to be, what he wanted outsiders to think Uganda was and what he wanted the world to know about him spoke volumes about his delusional vision and offered an eerie, disturbing read -between -the -lines look behind the curtain at a terrorized country. Amin puts Uganda's military prowess on display by showcasing his "paratroopers" "training" despite Uganda's lack of any airplanes. The training includes the troopers jump -training from a four -ft. high, rickety wooden platform and scooting down a playground slide. At another point Amin leads Schroeder and cameraman Néstor Almendros on a river float to show off the profusion of wildlife present in likely the same reserve he reportedly commonly drifted through to randomly machinegun down animals.

Amin is obsessed with the "Jewish threat", discussing a letter to UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim (after the 1972 massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich) in which he praises Adolf Hitler. His troops train for his planned invasion of Israel by charging up a hill Amin has decided is a good stand-in for the Golan Heights. At one point Amin reveals the ‘manual' he's come to own in which the Jews' plans for world domination are spelled out - The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion - an anti -Semitic screed that had been thoroughly debunked as an absurd forgery for many decades before finding its way to Uganda.

Maybe most telling in Amin's public relations tour are the looks of barely -concealed terror on the faces of virtually everyone he encounters. As is the eventual recognition that Amin is perhaps literally the only overweight Ugandan to appear in the film; his countrymen and women often being rail -thin. In one of the most chilling scenes, Amin playfully berates his foreign minister for perceived shortcomings in managing the world's perception of Uganda. Two weeks later the murdered functionary is found floating in the Nile.

In a creepy postscript, when Barbet Schroeder released a slightly longer, narrated version for the non -Uganda world, Idi Amin held all the French in Uganda hostage and had them call Schroeder at home describing the danger they were in if he didn't make Amin's cuts. Schroeder cut two and a half minutes from the film, replacing the excised footage with title cards until Amin's overthrow allowed the footage to be returned.

The Subject: Shoah
The Creator: Claude Lanzmann

Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary Shoah is a hard movie to watch, and not necessarily because it's 9.5 hours long. It's an intense and aggressive recounting of perhaps the 20th century's most horrifying chapter. An epic praised by historians and hated by Holocaust -deniers. Unlike most of his predecessors and peers, Lanzmann included no archival footage of the work camps or death camps - it's all contemporary interviews with survivors and perpetrators.

Interestingly, the most emotionally -taxing sequence (in my opinion, again) isn't provided by some Nazi Commandant describing the concentration camps, it's given by a barber. This barber, Abraham Bomba, was forced to shave the heads of the women and children headed for the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp (where more than 800,000 -1,000,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered). Bomba describes the assembly line murder with the flat aspect of someone who's survived more than anyone should have to until he attempts to describe a fellow barber encountering his own wife and sister coming to die and breaks down.

Bomba pleads with Lanzmann to be allowed to stop but Lanzmann insists he continue, "You have to do it." Bomba relents and continues, painfully. It's representative of Lanzmann's style and fixation on what he considers an unequivocal historical necessity - getting the truth of the Holocaust no matter what. There are two particular instances demonstrative of that philosophy which are considered particularly controversial. The first is an interview with for former SS-Unterscharführer (junior sergeant) Franz Suchomel who'd worked at the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. Lanzmann tells Suchomel that the interview may be taped but will be locked down for thirty years before its release due to the sensitivity of its content. Suchomel is unaware that he is being filmed by a secret camera Lanzmann has smuggled in secreted in a briefcase.

Because Suchomel is both unaware he's being filmed and believes any tape recording made will be under lock and key for 30 years ,he opens up and gives terrifying, graphic details of the mass murder he was witness (and arguably party) to in the death camps. He does so without any apparent remorse and often even cheerfully. At one point Suchomel jovially sings a mocking song the Jews were forced to sing before being killed. When finished, Suchomel chuckles and qualifies, "We're laughing but it's so sad!" as though he's recounting watching someone falling in a funny way.

An un-amused Lanzmann has Suchomel re -sing the song after which the former Nazi camp guard blithely points out that there are no living Jews who know the words to the ditty. However awful those moments are and however much critics may disapprove of lying to an interview subject, Claude Lanzmann points out that he did what he had to do to get this information before it died with the participants.

The other example has Lanzmann interviewing Einsatzgruppen SS officer Heinz Schubert. To secure the interview the filmmaker identifies himself as Dr. Sorel throughout their pre -interview correspondence. "Dr. Sorel" arrives at Schubert's house under the auspices of collecting oral histories of the war, specifically men from the Einsatzgruppe. Schubert immediately requests that Sorel/Lanzmann kill the tape recorder (obviously with no idea that Lanzmann is filming the interview with his hidden camera). Even Lanzmann's assurances that the tapes won't be released for 30 years fail to relieve Schubert's anxieties. In response, Lanzmann/Dr. Sorel stops the tape recorder (but not the camera), asserts that the recording has ceased and begins the interview. Once more, terrible and specific details about the nuts and bolts of the Holocaust are shared.

As with the Idi Amin biography, there's an unsettling addendum to the Schubert interview in Shoah. The interview ends abruptly when Heinz Schubert's son arrives, having been alerted by the neighbors that voices can be heard emerging from the van in which Lanzmann's crew is clandestinely recording and compiling the secret footage. Lanzmann is confronted by Schubert, who demands that the briefcase hiding the camera is opened. Upon refusing Lanzmann and the woman acting as his translator are attacked by Schubert, his son and several other men. The two escape but are beaten bloody in the process. It seems the search for truth can be painful, particularly when that truth concerns dictators and their crimes against humanity. Perhaps the only sorts of situations in which the telling of smaller lies is forgiveable are those involving the gathering of greater truths.

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast, writer of movie reviews, and owner of which has great information on movies, actors, and films like Jack Reacher. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites like Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.

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