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Documentaries on the hook for not keeping it real

Adam Graham
The Detroit News (TNS)
Musician Sly Stone is featured in "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," the directorial debut of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. (Mass Distraction Media/Sundance Institute/TNS)

Documentaries are real. Aren't they?

The truth of documentaries is coming under question after two high-profile new movies have raised questions about the authenticity of the art form and the reality of what is being presented on screen.

The excellent Anthony Bourdain documentary "Roadrunner" invited scrutiny on the eve of its release when its director, Morgan Neville, said in an interview that in three instances in the film, Bourdain is heard saying things he didn't actually say aloud.

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And then there's Questlove's "Summer of Soul" doc, which unearths footage from 1969's Harlem Cultural Festival, which had supposedly been locked in a basement for 50 years. Recent reports find that many of the film's performances had been available for years on YouTube, and the concert aired on TV in the very year it was held, which tears away at the film's very premise, and the notion that the footage was ignored for decades.

Yes, documentaries are supposed to be real, but they are often subject to the same marketing maneuvers, filmmaking tricks and truth-bending wizardry of any other Hollywood films. The question is whether or not these examples are deal breakers on the films in question, and those answers need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Nonfiction films have been around for nearly a century, since 1922's "Nanook of the North," and questions about their inherent authenticity are just as old. (Some scenes in Robert Flaherty's film were staged for the camera.)

Michigan's Michael Moore, likely the most popular (as well as the most divisive) documentary filmmaker of all-time — his "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the only doc to cross the $100 million mark at the North American box office — has always been criticized for the roles his own viewpoints play in his films. His films may not be documentaries in the purest sense of the art form, but we've long accepted his films as presenting his version of the truth, told from his perspective.

But because documentaries are ostensibly dealing with the truth, or at least some form of it, documentarians are subject to a code of ethics that fiction filmmakers are not. In documentaries, staged scenes are seen as a no-no, except when they're accepted as such and given a pass. (Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," in 1988, included some re-created scenes, and it remains one of the most celebrated documentaries of all time.) Manipulations of the truth are also seen as transgressions, but isn't all truth subject to someone's interpretation of it?

In last week's "Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage" documentary, an argument is mounted that 1969's original Woodstock festival was a bit of a disaster in its own right, but that the popular perception of it as a utopian ideal of the hippie generation was largely shaped by Michael Wadleigh's 1970 "Woodstock" documentary. That shows the power a documentary can wield.

Since it took place in the same summer of '69, "Summer of Soul" pits the Harlem music festival against Woodstock. Why was one remembered and the other lost to time? The fact that the footage from the Harlem fest has supposedly been stored away for so long is used to help bolster the argument that the Harlem fest was buried, which is part the film's very premise.

But a blog post earlier this month by author Greg Mitchell found that not only has footage from the festival circulated online in some form for a number of years, but a handful of filmmakers — including "Roadrunner" director Morgan Neville — shopped a documentary about the fest back in 2007. Mitchell's blog post included several YouTube clips of the festival's performances, which have since been pulled due to copyright claims by Disney, which owns Hulu, "Summer of Soul's" streaming distributor.

The "Summer of Soul" flap doesn't take away from the power of the performances of the film, which are the doc's true lifeblood, but it does chip away at the idea that the film is presenting a long lost cultural artifact, which had been forgotten until Questlove came across the footage.

The Bourdain incident presents a deeper ethical issue, but doesn't detract from the impact of the film at all. In the movie, Bourdain's friend David Choe talks about an email he received from Bourdain, in which he asked Choe if he was happy. In voice-over, Bourdain is heard reading the email, which immediately raised the question, "how did the filmmakers get the audio of Bourdain reading an email he wrote?"

Well, they didn't. The quotes were manufactured using deepfake technology, so Bourdain didn't actually say them, an AI re-created them in Bourdain's voice. This is a much more troubling ethical breach and has much more far-reaching implications going forward, but given the context of the film — it's a stark portrait of Bourdain and his demons — it doesn't change the story that is being told in any way.

The main thing the doctored quotes have done is cast an unfortunate pall over "Roadrunner" and bring into question the truth of what is on screen. But in documentary filmmaking, that's nothing new. 

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(Adam Graham is The Detroit News film critic.)

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