Making documentaries in the post-truth era
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2017: The discussion on 23 May kick-started the second Doc Day at Cannes – an event organised by the Film Market with the support of the CNC, amongst others
“Documentaries are essential for the CNC. Every year, we give more than €80 million to French documentaries because for us, they are essential for understanding the world and educating citizens,” said Christophe Tardieu (director general of the CNC) as he addressed the audience of “Documentaries in the Post-Truth Era” – a morning discussion at the Cannes Film Market moderated by Wendy Mitchell (Screen International).
“Post-truth is a nicer name for fake news, right?” observed Mitchell before giving the floor to Carrie Lozano (director at IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund), Kathleen Lingo (executive producer at The New York Times Op-Docs), Kathy K Im (director of The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation), Laurent Richard (Premières Lignes) and Gonzalo Lamela (director of Films For Transparency), who went on to cover such topics as the need to tell complex stories, the shortage of proper funding and, indeed, fake news.
“I am happy to talk about the era of fighting fake news because nowadays, we need information more than ever. We need to make journalism great again,” observed Richard, riffing on Donald Trump’s infamous slogan. Lingo seemed to agree: “As far as fact-checking goes, we’ve noticed that there are more errors when filmmakers don’t have a background in journalism. There is certainly a need for documentary films to maintain the same guidelines, both in terms of research and ethics, as traditional journalism when telling true stories,” she told Cineuropa.
Another pressing issue is providing journalists with a sense of security, which is why Richard decided to start a new initiative: Freedom Voices Network, a collaborative platform devoted to publishing the work of investigative reporters who are harassed, threatened or even killed. One thing is certain: as far as safety is concerned, you can’t do too much. “As a journalist, you should get used to encrypting all your messages,” underlined Lozano. “Now I am using [private messenger] Signal even when I talk about the shopping list with my husband, but that’s the point – it should just become automatic.”
Although the ever-changing political landscape presents filmmakers with new challenges, documentaries still play a vital role. As argued by the participants, in the age of rampaging populism and social networks becoming the main (or sometimes only) source of information, we need them more than ever. “It is no longer the case that we all watch the same 6 o’clock news or read the morning paper,” observed Lingo. “Instead, we each seek out our sources of information based on our own preferences: be it on our personalised Facebook and Twitter feeds, or by going to specific websites. Filmmakers should keep on looking for new ways to tell great stories and work hard to disseminate them as widely as possible.”
“In order for documentaries to re-emerge, I think we will have to wait until the fascination with the 'fantastic' social media dies down a bit. It seems that now people want to see more blood but to listen less,” said acclaimed filmmaker Amos Gitaï during his talk with film critic Jean-Michel Frodon. Gitaï, whose latest film West of the Jordan River [+see also:
film profile] was chosen for the Directors’ Fortnight, stressed that while documentaries shouldn’t shy away from controversial subjects, they should also allow viewers to form their own opinions. “The nicest thing about documentary, and it’s something that can’t be done in fiction, is that you see the transformation in people,” he said. “Which is why I am against some important films that were awarded here in Cannes. I agree with them politically, but they leave no room for doubt – and doubt is the source of thinking. Documentaries should encourage us to ask questions – especially today.”
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