Documentaries: Different Interpretations of Truth

In a recent On The Media podcast, host Bob spoke with documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger – co-creator of Paradise Lost. They discuss the different interpretations of the truth some say occur in documentary filmmaking. A prime example is the recent HBO documentary “The Jinx,” directed by Andrew Jarecki. The documentary follows the murders of suspect Robert Durst. In the bombshell finale, Durst unknowingly admits to the murders, saying, “what the hell did I do..killed them all, of course.” The 6-episode series was truly gripping television. One viewer called it “the true crime series we’ve all been waiting for.”

The spotlight often shifts from the subject to the filmmakers themselves when they appear in parts of their documentary. Throughout the documentary filmmaking process, filmmakers encounter a variety of ethical decisions that have to be made. In Berlinger’s “Paradise Lost,” there were three young, male victims and they were at the gravesite of one of the deceased boys, and the boys’ step-father gave the crew a “gift.” The gift was a serrated knife and, upon close examination, they noticed it had blood on it. The crazy part…the stab wounds of the victim were consistent with those of a serrated knife. The filmmakers became the source of the possible murder weapon.

Berlinger stated that he believes all media if subjective from how to choose the frame shot to decisions of dwindling down footage to fit runtime. In all of these decisions, maintaining a filmmaker-subject relationship, according to Berlinger, is key. However, they have a moral obligation to turn over possible evidence and good citizenship triumphs over filmmaking needs.

So, how do these decisions affect the filmmaking process and the way facts are presented? It is true that filmmakers exclude certain complicating facts to make things more easily understood and to create a more seamless and powerful feel. An example of this being that Durst was arrested on the exact evening of “The Jinx” finale, which does certainly seem ironic. Berlinger says there is a fiddle with sequence because when you have compress a six-week murder trial into a two-hour film, not every moment can be show. Therefore, there is a compression of time and that, by definition, is a manipulation of chronology. He also said that it is true that documentarians selectively withhold information until the right dramatic moment and says it’s important to “thread the needle” in a way that you keep your audience and have an unfolding narrative because that is what filmmaking is. That being said, Berlinger made it clear that it is not acceptable to falsify facts and say something happened on a certain date when in fact, it happened on another. This makes the difference between a good documentary and a bad documentary plus the idea that there needs to be a balance between truthfulness and storytelling. There is a fine line between exploitation and investigation and filmmakers need to be careful to not exploit the story.

I really enjoyed hearing them talk about this topic because its something that I think is thought about often. There is the typical cliche about how the “hollywood” version of a story is always dramatized and manipulated and it was interesting to hear Berlinger discuss how they handle this in documentary filmmaking. I am very much in favor of withholding information for the right dramatic moment as long as the facts are told truthfully. I agree completely with the idea of “threading the needle” to keep the audience captivated and to have an unfolding narrative. If this was not the case, I don’t think any of us viewers would take the time to watch these series.