Sheffield Doc/Fest

By Heather Croall

heather-croall.jpgHeather Croall

F is for Factual – F is for Fakery: Documentary Manoeuvres

Over the last few months, documentary film and factual television have come under great scrutiny from the media, academics and even filmmakers, who have questioned the ethical and editorial quality of recent films and programmes. The flare-ups around fakery in factual TV have resulted in some far-reaching blows on the industry and, in response, it is important that a case for the art of documentary making and storytelling is put forward. In the past couple of months producers close to completion on their docs are being told to recut the films to remove any editing that might ‘play with time’ or change the sequence of events to be presented chronologically. Clearly flipping cause and effect is about creating false drama and inventing fake tension but cutting out of chronological order does not always mean that cause and effect have been switched. Playing with time in filmmaking is the art of storytelling and is not necessarily done with a view to deceiving the audience. The idea that documentary makers must edit their footage in chronological order removes much of the craft and skill involved.

Documentaries have the power to cause social change, to entertain and inform and they work best when a filmmaker is given the space to put their authorial stamp on them. To limit that will result in a bland crop of docs in the future.

Debates of fakery in documentary are of course nothing new. Documentary has long been a slippery concept. One of the first-ever documentaries, Nanook of the North, was a complete construction with the role of filmmaker and subject being well rehearsed in advance and virtually ‘played out’ – it was a film made before the distinction between documentary and fiction had even been drawn up. When D.A. Pennebaker was challenged on whether Don't Look Back, his doc on Dylan was a construction, he asked the critic, “would you care if I told you it was fake?”

Given the recent attacks on factual programming, this year’s Doc/Fest will be an important forum for debate around the issues and challenges facing the documentary and factual television industry. In particular, the festival will host a selection of sessions and screenings that will explore the fakery issue and re-establish the validity of documentary. All Documentary Is a Lie and You Know It’s the Truth is a session that offers the chance to approach the topic with some humour; some well-known names from the UK documentary industry will battle out the topic in a classic Oxford-style Debate. With the findings of the Will Wyatt report, an independent enquiry into misleading footage used in a documentary about the Queen, due to be made public in October, the fakery issue will be at the centre of debates for some time to come.

Heather Croall is festival director of Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Join the debate in Sheffield from 7-11 November 2007.