Magical Realism

Why Gabriel Garcia Marquez would never get a job with PBS--and other truths of nonfiction film

It seemed a little too easy to find the connection between the unemployed yob who took a suburban joyride in a tank and the gay American artist who turned to cannibalism in the Amazon. And who could fail to find the common ground between the opaque French philosopher who cooked up "deconstruction," Jacques Derrida, and the refugee philosopher who orchestrated the bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger? So when it came to breaking down the 15 movies that make up the second annual City Pages Documentary Film Festival (screening this Thursday through Sunday), we asked Sean Farnel and Michael Galinsky to get to the bottom of this whole nonfiction film thing. Like, what's the meaning of truth anyway? And for a dose of reality, why not just stay home and watch Dateline or Fear Factor?

Galinsky, by the way, is the co-director of one of the movies in the fest, Horns and Halos, the story of what happened when St. Martin's Press dropped plans to publish Fortunate Son, a scathing biography of George W. Bush, penned by a convicted felon. (Galinsky will be appearing at the Oak Street Cinema with co-director Suki Hawley on the festival's opening night.) Sean Farnel is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.

 

Sean Farnel: When you're making a documentary, there's one sense in which you're simply making a record of something that happened, and another sense in which you're shaping that material into a story. As I see it, the crux of the challenge for a documentary filmmaker involves balancing himself between those two sides: the document side and the story side. And the audience today has become quite savvy in terms of questioning whether the film is telling "the truth" or not.

Michael Galinsky: Often the truth is a lot less clear-cut than people want to believe. Some people have come out of Horns and Halos feeling confused because they think they don't know what we think--even though they do. The problem is that we haven't told them, This is what you need to think.

Farnel: You haven't wrapped it up in a box and put a ribbon around it. That's the best thing about the documentary films I've admired most in recent years--your film included, and also Cul de Sac [about a plumber who stole a tank and drove it through suburban California]: There's ambiguity. Watching those films, you're getting the narrative, but you're also getting the sense that there's a lot more going on than the filmmaker could possibly tell you in 90 minutes.

Galinsky: I think most people who go to see a documentary expect to see a TV documentary, with talking heads and archival footage--a PBS-type thing. As a result, we as documentary filmmakers feel this pressure not only to make it obvious what we think about our subjects, but to try to prove something definitive through the process of creating the film. Put it this way: Gabriel Garcia Marquez would never get a job with PBS.

Farnel: He could never follow the Universal Clock: the broadcasting rule that all documentaries must fit in a 52-minute slot.

Galinsky: We know all about the Universal Clock. We sent Horns and Halos to 20 different companies, and they all wrote back and said, "Can we see a 52-minute cut?" And we're like, "Well, you could, but it wouldn't be a movie anymore."

Farnel: That's why there's a documentary film festival circuit--because there's so much good work that doesn't fit the Universal Clock.

Galinsky: Or else it's too polemical--which can be good and bad. I think The Trials of Henry Kissinger is great in some ways, and important, too, and I'm certainly glad it was made. It's a film that basically argues that Kissinger should be prosecuted as a war criminal. But it doesn't seem like something that needs to be seen in a theater. To me, it doesn't feel like a movie.

Farnel: It was made for the BBC. But I would say that it plays a lot better in a theater. I for one would rather see it with a bunch of people who share my sensibilities--we can talk about it afterward--than alone in my living room, where I just sit there thinking, "Okay, now that's over. What else is on?" Kissinger has done great business theatrically and at festivals. But why hasn't it gotten a broadcast deal in the U.S.? Because it's too polemical?

Galinsky: I think Dateline has led audiences to expect that everything will be wrapped up neatly for them. They expect to know what the ending is going to be in the first five minutes. Even without a narrator, they expect that.

Farnel: Well, I don't think anyone watches Dateline or Survivor and then comes to work the next morning and says, "Oh, I saw this great documentary last night." I don't buy into the argument that reality TV is polluting documentaries. In fact, it has never been a better time for documentaries. Bowling for Columbine is about to become the highest-grossing documentary of all time. I think what reality TV has done is to show that there's this real hunger out there for work that taps into a sense of possibility--a sense that you're watching something and you have no idea what's going to happen. Fiction filmmaking hasn't done such a great job of providing a sense of possibility; it has gotten so formulaic. Therefore audiences are looking for other kinds of films--including films that are more raw.

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