Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Documentaries About Elaborate Fabrications

A few weeks ago, I wrote up a post about a trio of 2010 documentaries that blurred the line between fact and fiction - "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Catfish," and "I'm Still Here." The last of these, the notorious chronicle of Joaquin Phoenix's self-destruction, turned out to be almost entirely created from staged or scripted footage. The creators of "Exit" and "Catfish" have managed to keep secret which parts of their films were real, and which events may not have played out on camera exactly as they did in real life. Now I have two more 2010 documentaries for the list, that don't engage in any line-blurring themselves, but instead examine the act of creating similar elaborate fictions, and the motivations behind them.

First we have "A Film Unfinished," which looks at the creation of the unfinished 1942 Nazi propaganda film "Das Ghetto," depicting life in the Warsaw ghetto. Directed and narrated by Yael Hersonski, the documentary systematically reveals that almost all the footage seen in "Das Ghetto" was staged, often through the violent coercion of the film's subjects. The goal was to show life in the ghetto was pleasant and happy for the Jews, while in truth there was massive overcrowding and most of the population was starving to death. When harsher realities were shown, it was only to insinuate that the more well-off Jews were stingy or unfeeling. The surviving footage from "Das Ghetto" is remarkable in that so much of it looks innocuous, consisting mainly of scenes of normal, everyday life. Yet the Germans often went to elaborate lengths to create these scenes, essentially manufacturing that sense of normalcy out of whole cloth. It's no wonder, as Hersonski informs us, that originally some historians were deceived, and treated parts of "Das Ghetto" as factual.

Several different sources are used to uncover all the various untruths in the film. The diary of the ghetto's Jewish leader provides a detailed account of the Nazi film crew's efforts to create a list of scenes they wanted, coupled with descriptions of the continued subjugation of the ghetto's inhabitants. Recorded war crimes trial testimony and additional filmed footage from one of the cameramen, Willy Wist, provides the perspective of the German filmmakers. A reel of outtakes and alternate takes, discovered decades after the edited footage, is especially illuminating, as it reveals that not only were many scenes staged, but filmed over and over from multiple angles to achieve the desired effect. The most moving moments come from the survivors of the ghetto, who are shown watching the film and reminiscing over their experiences. Here, the deceptions come across as especially cruel. At the sight of a funeral scene, one elderly woman exclaims in disbelief that Jews were never buried in coffins, as the film depicts. Alternate footage of the actual means of disposing corpses from the ghetto, provides more sobering context.

"A Film Unfinished" does an exceptional job of setting the historical record straight, but it's also a stark reminder of how easily films can lie to us. The happiest and most joyful scenes in "Das Ghetto" were often those filmed in the most horrifying circumstances, or were achieved through unthinkable tactics employed by the filmmakers. The extent of the Nazi effort to rewrite history is monstrous, but familiar. We've seen similar techniques used by so many filmmakers since 1942, sometimes playfully as in Orson Welles' "F is for Fake," sometimes satirically, as in "Borat," and sometimes for far less altruistic purposes. "A Film Unfinished" stands as a cautionary warning of the power of film to warp, or even supplant reality. It's especially dismaying to realize that "Das Ghetto" contains some of the only surviving film footage of the Warsaw ghetto, which was liquidated in 1943.

But, so as not to leave you totally depressed, I also want to write briefly about another documentary, "Marwencol," which also looks at the creation of an alternate, idealized reality, but for therapeutic purposes. Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New Yorker who suffered debilitating brian damage after a brutal attack, created the fantasy world of Marwencol to help deal with his demons. Located in Mark's backyard, Marwencol is an incredibly detailed World War II era Belgian town, populated by dolls that have been modified to resemble the people from Mark's life, including his mother, friends, co-workers, and a neighbor he develops a crush on. General Patton, Steve McQueen, and a witch with aquamarine hair are also residents. Here, Mark plays out various storylines and relationships, with the doll representing himself as the central figure.

Mark treats "Marwencol" as a real place, so the documentary, directed by Jeff Malmberg, often treats "Marwencol" as a real place as well. Several scenes are shot within the reality of the town itself, with the dolls acting out various scenarios like Mark's arrival to the town, a German infiltration, and a wedding. Some of these stories can get a little wild, like Mark running a bar that features staged catfights between Barbie dolls, for the entertainment of the troops. Marwencol is shown to be Mark's way of trying to gain control over his own fractured mind, after the attack robbed him of most of his memories and much of his ability to function normally in society. When the town is discovered and publicized by a local photographer, Mark has to grapple with the idea of Marwencol being a work of art, and decide whether he's willing to share something so personal to him with the rest of the world.

"Marwencol" is a great story about a man's imagination being his salvation, and makes for a good pairing with "A Film Unfinished," because it argues that sometimes the urge to rewrite reality can lead to very positive end results. Both are extremes on the spectrum, of course, with "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "Catfish" falling somewhere in the middle. All these films tackle the question of what reality is or should be. It's a pressing question in this day and age, where the boundaries are getting more fluid than ever between our fantasies and our real world lives, with unpredictable consequences. I think we're bound to see more documentaries and pseudo-documentaries in the same vein in the future, but after the batch from last year they're going to have a lot to live up to.

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