Now that 'Catfish' is about to open (on 12 screens today), the general public is finally gaining access to the complete trio of films being lumped together and labeled across the media as a trend of "questionable documentaries," "elusive docs," "quasinonfiction" or whatever other term can be used to describe documentary works with an uncertain degree of authenticity or truthfulness. This latest, added to 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' and 'I'm Still Here,' apparently makes 2010 the year of the dubious doc.
The problem for me is that, although I do see a common ground with these films, I feel the need to remind everyone that the history of documentary has been the history of fakery, trickery, manipulation and general blurring of reality and fiction. The beginnings of cinema, most of the first films from Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers, Georges Melies and other lesser-known names were qualifiably non-fiction but in many parts involved staging, performed lives and, in Melies' more honest advertisements, "reconstitution."
Following an early period of deceit even in historical and journalistic record, though, documentary ultimately became more and more assumed to be first and foremost depictions of real-life and a trustworthily informative and educational medium. Perhaps it was the invention of the newsreel that led to such faith, yet even then propaganda and spin ruled a lot of reportage and especially/obviously the growing new PR industry.
Then, once the feature non-fiction film came about, there was still a great dependence on less-than-forthright re-creation, including embellished battle scenes -- in the case of the WWI film 'The Battle of the Somme,' some filmed before the fighting actually began. And in the case of ethnographic studies like 'Nanook of the North,' interest in how things used to be rather than how they were at the time of filming.
None of this background has been completely ignored by nor is unknown to most film critics writing about the latest "trend." Vulture, for instance, recently posted a related piece on "the rise of the questionable documentary," referencing 'Nanook,' the 1966 Oscar-winner 'The War Game,' Orson Welles' 'F for Fake' and 'The Hangover' director Todd Phillips' controversial Sundance hit, 'Frat House' (which as far as I know has never been officially released -- though it has been screened publicly and can be viewed online in bootleg form).
Also at New York magazine, though, is David Edelstein's review of 'Catfish,' which also links the three 2010 films and goes back only as far as 2003 to recall the deceptively staged bits of Jonathan Couette's 'Tarnation.' He then states that from now on "all documentary filmmakers must be viewed as potential scam artists," even (gasp) Frederick Wiseman. Problem is, despite his reputation for being the genuine article in the field of observational cinema verite, Wiseman is far from innocent with regards to the use of manipulative editing. He'll tell you himself that his films are not so much realities as cinematic representations of his perception of the real events.
Okay, so what I'm basically saying is that no documentary has ever been 100% truthful? This can be argued I guess, at least as much as you can argue that every film ever made is a documentary in a way. But it doesn't really matter. It's all just classification b.s.
What I find particularly interesting with all this hoopla concerning the questionability of the 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' 'I'm Still Here' and 'Catfish' trio is how ironically it contrasts the attitude a hundred years ago. According to documentary historian Erik Barnouw, who long ago wrote the still-biblical text for non-fiction film studies, it was the increased trickery and dubious nature of docs produced at the turn of the 20th century that partly led to lowered interest in this mode of cinema, allowing for fictional works to become the more prominent and publicly favored kind of motion pictures.
Now, after a hundred years of being divisively synonymous with both news and discernibly subjective realities, it is increased trickery and dubious-natured docs that suddenly have general audiences interested in at least a few documentary films. Nobody is just now realizing that non-fiction films aren't to necessarily and wholly be believed. And the alleged appeal of contemplating the trio of films for their ambiguous, uncertain, puzzle-like quality makes little sense given that plenty of docs provide just as much inconclusiveness and debate fodder.
Whether they are in part or wholly or not at all true (and likewise whether they are good or bad, in your opinion), 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' 'I'm Still Here' and 'Catfish' are more importantly a trio of films that are doing interesting things with the film medium, creatively, in order to convey messages about the art world, the entertainment media and the Internet, respectively. And they each chiefly mean to tell a good story, utilizing whatever tricks, twists and tools are best served for the presentation of that story.
For me, a story can't ever be doubted. It can only be of interest or not to its audience. And so it goes for most documentaries, as well.