Actress Tava Smiley attends the premiere of HBO Documentary Films' "Teenage Paparazzo" at the Pacific Design Center on September 21, 2010 in West Hollywood, California.
Actress Hannah Marks attends the premiere of HBO Documentary Films' "Teenage Paparazzo" at the Pacific Design Center on September 21, 2010 in West Hollywood, California.
Actress Noa Tishby attends the premiere of HBO Documentary Films' "Teenage Paparazzo" at the Pacific Design Center on September 21, 2010 in West Hollywood, California. In a world of tight schedules and limited budgets, real people are more often than not getting turned into underpaid actors. Samir picked up his wife’s hand and told her he’d been thinking long and hard about their 10-year marriage. Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. This was their anniversary dinner, after all, and she was expecting heartfelt sentiments and, at least, a bunch of red roses. Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life. In the show, we took boorish, unromantic slobs and turned them into suave gentlemen for their wedding or anniversary. It was typical makeover fare and required just two things—a real person and a happy ending. How we turned those two things into good ratings was less simple and involved a complex dance of mutual exploitation.


We needed to mine the maximum amount of drama out of their lives in the shortest possible time, and they wanted a free suit and fame.
After a week of trying to teach Samir table manners and getting him in touch with his feelings, we found our subject had made no romantic progress whatsoever, but he had become a sly collaborator in the process of producing reality TV. Since then I haven’t made another reality show, but I am making documentaries, and I keep asking myself if they are really that much different. After all, documentary filmmakers are also purveyors of a tell-all, show-all, know-all culture.
Everyday life has become pop-culture entertainment, exploited as much by big TV networks and social-media companies as by the Jacks and Jills who offer up their lives in exchange for being noticed.That makes me, your typical liberal who wants to make a difference with my art documentaries, a bit queasy. What is happening when I take the raw ingredients of life and turn them into an entertaining product?
And is that end product an approximation of reality, a blatant exploitation of it, or a mushy in-between that is blurring the lines of fact and fiction?I know as well as anyone that the best moments are the real moments, ones that haven’t been set up or redone.
But in a world of tight schedules and limited budgets, real people are more often than not getting turned into underpaid actors. In his film Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the subject, Dieter, escaped from a Cambodian prison camp. In the film, we see Dieter entering his house and then opening and closing the door obsessively from both sides, over and over, to make certain he isn’t locked in.
It was 100 percent Herzog’s creation.We all know that filmmaking by its very nature has to bend the facts.


I often think back to something a respected documentary director said to me when we were in the edit room piecing together a film he had shot.
I was just a neophyte producer at that time, and when I saw him borrowing bits and pieces of footage and using them in unrelated scenes, I asked him what he was doing.“Lying the truth,” he responded with a dramatic flourish of the paste key.
In other words, there is a greater truth to which you must remain loyal, but the means by which you express this truth are a bit looser.The debate over a documentary’s “creative use of actuality,” as genre pioneer John Grierson put it, is one we’ve hashed out many times as documentarians, but now I think it’s only half of the question. What’s happening on the other end of the lens?I’m part of a documentary community, which has been capturing people’s lives on film for more than a hundred years. We don’t just worry about bending the truth of our subjects’ lives, we now have to wonder just how “truthful” are the lives we’re supposedly documenting. There are umpteen cases of outright fraud—the fake marriage betrayal on Moment of Truth and half the stories on Jerry Springer come to mind—and even 2011’s bumper documentary crop produced a few head-scratchers like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish. It’s not as if we’ve turned into a planet of liars, but we do live in a media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed world where your personal story, as dramatic and embellished as possible, is a commodity you can buy and sell.As filmmakers we’re part of the mutual-exploitation vortex.



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