Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Truth About NO LIES (If you can believe it.)

Alec Hirschfield, the Camerman


This was originally published in "F is For Phony: Fake Documentaries and Truth's Undoing (Visible Evidence)"

by Alexandra Juhasz Juhasz and Jesse Lerner (Hardcover - Sep 22, 2006)

By Mitchell W. Block

It’s July 2002 and I am observing a photo shoot for a new “reality” program that will air on TNT in 2003 called (working title) THE RESIDENTS. R.J. Cutler, produce of THE WAR ROOM, and most recently, the Emmy Award-winning series (FOX and PBS) AMERICAN HIGH, is the show’s executive producer and his company, Actual Reality Pictures, has been making this work for the last year. THE RESIDENTS follows a year in the life of surgical and family practice residents at UCLA’s medical centers in Los Angeles. They each allowed a film crew to shoot them at home and in the hospital. In most cases they even recorded themselves on a portable video “diary” camera, “private” moments which, if selected, will be included in the television show possibly seen by millions of people. This is a publicity photo shoot of the “real” doctors who participated in sharing their real life adventures with Cutler’s two (sometimes three) crews. Gathered around a real hospital gurney, with the green leatherette pad, are nine doctors. Some are wearing scrubs and others are in nice office clothes. They have all been to the make-up and hair stylists who are working in an adjoining room. The PR staffers from TNT coordinating with their photographer who is shooting large format still shots on a large photo stage of the doctors, carefully approving the look of each of the doctors, nodding as they are made up and their hair is styled. What is striking to this observer is that this multi-cultural group of attractive men and women could be actors playing doctors but they are actually made-up doctors playing themselves. They are “real”!

Alec Hirschfeld (L) Shelby Leverington (Center) and Mitchell Block during NO LIES shoot

Cutler and his team of vèritè crews are making reality television. A team of transcribers, story editors, many producers and editors supports the crews. They use terms such as “story arc”, “beats” “the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story lines,” refer to the real scenes as if they were scripted and film as they try to piece them together into minidramas which will become the acts of a 47 or so minute television hour with breaks for commercials. Shoot first then script. Sometimes instructions come to the crews from the story editors to shoot an ending to a dramatic arc. The crews oblige. The economic advantage of using real people is clear to program executives. One does not have to pay residuals (or actors) for what will be (or at least one hopes) a season’s series. Real life dramas from real life people present a solid economic model to network programming executives. It also can be first-rate programming. What are the responsibilities of the filmmakers to the subjects? To the audience?

I have observed this experience with the reader because R. J. Cutler’s work is taking place 30 years after I made NO LIES. It follows the pioneer work of Alan and Susan Raymond (who shot) and Executive Producer Craig Gilbert in their 1972/3 PBS series AN AMERICAN FAMILY and stylistically moves from the pacing and form towards what might be called an “MTV look”. This is not intended to imply one style is better than another but rather to suggest that the pacing is a whole lot faster. Many of THE RESIDENTS crew and cast were not even born when this showed aired. (THE RESIDENTS flows from the success of R. J. Cutler’s earlier work AMERICAN HIGH. Many of the key THE RESIDENTS crew worked on this project.) AN AMERICAN FAMILY also had press photos shot in a studio, 8mm film diaries were shot (home video was not yet usable on-air) and the crew developed relationships with the subjects. Simplistically almost everything is the same. The new work is not being made in an intellectual or cultural vacuum. THE RESIDENTS filmmakers in many cases went to film school and have a solid grounding in film history. A number of the filmmakers involved with this program were my students at USC. Despite the 30 years that have past there is almost no separation between Cutler and the filmmakers of the 1970’s. Joan Churchill who was one of the cinematographers on AN AMERICAN FAMILY is one of the two principle cinematographers for Cutler.

I share this with the reader because I made my work, NO LIES in response to AN AMERICAN FAMILY as it was in production/post production 30 years ago. NO LIES is a film about filmmaking (and filmmakers making films). AN AMERICAN FAMILY was the catalyst. Eleanor Hamerow, one of my teachers (at the NYU Graduate Film Program) was one of the original editors for the series. She is credited with editing its first hour. I understand she left AN AMERICAN FAMILY because she was so concerned about the many ethical questions that the production process raised. How was the filmmaking process affecting the people who were sharing their lives with the filmmakers? How would showing the film to the public affect their lives? Was the process of making AN AMERICAN FAMILY altering the course of the lives of the film’s subjects? NO LIES is a simple story with a simple narrative arc that explores these relationships between filmmakers and their subjects. The big difference is that my work was scripted or story-edited before it was shot. It is a drama that is fictional rather than drama that is “real.” No real people were exposing their inner lives to the camera or the public since no real people were used. The idea for the work developed, in part, because of the tensions I observed between Hamerow and Gilbert. I did not see AN AMERICAN FAMILY until many years later, in part, because of the anger Hamerow felt towards the work as well as my lack of access to television and the work not being available on film or video. I wondered, “Is it possible to film reality without changing it?” or “Could one create reality fictionally and not worry about how filming it would effect the subjects since in my work the subjects do not exist, they are actors?”

Three years earlier, in the fall of 1968, I had the experience of seeing DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY at New York University. Jim McBride, L.M. Kit Carson and Michael Wadleigh’s DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY is in many respects the staged documentary that started a movement. The screening was not part of a class but rather a thrown together evening done as a student initiated event, Jim had been a graduate student at NYU. This screening forever changed my relationship with film. Without DAVID HOLZMAN, there would be no NO LIES. I believed it. I loved the film. I was taken in by Carson’s Holtzman character. I wanted to be Holtzman. What young aspiring filmmaker in 1968 would not want to be the Waspy Holtzman character? His life was falling apart before our eyes but we loved this character. In the end, David’s (Holtzman) Éclair camera and Nagra are stolen leaving him without a way to work—so the film ends over black as Holtzman tells us what has happened, this was something we all could relate to, after all our cinematography teacher Fred (Beta) Badka kept his 35mm cameras in a bank vault.

Carson/Holtzman (the fictional character) loses everything in the process of making this work. The film like the French New Wave works we are seeing is so (I can say it) cool. It hero’s downwards spiral that the film personally and painfully documents makes it so one can’t help not loving his character. (SEX LIVES AND VIDEOTAPE years later has a similar feel.) McBride, Wadleigh and Scorsese were all classmates in NYU’s pre-School of the Arts graduate film school in 1966. That same year John Cassavetes’ FACES premiered. Cassavetes influenced their work with his fictional reality. FACES was a gutsy “real life” drama with a tour de force in your face performance by it stars. These works, a few years later, when combined with the relentless screenings and analysis of BATTLE OF ALGIERS (Gillo Pontecorvo) in the fall of 1973 in the Graduate Film Program (where I made NO LIES as my MFA thesis work) created the intellectual atmosphere where one felt it was safe to challenge the conventional form of cinema. It made complete sense.

We were studying with revolutionaries. Leo Hurwitz was the directing teacher in the program-our filmmaker-in-residence. His professional credentials were impeccable and distinctly left wing. A one-time member of the Film and Photo League, Hurwitz had collaborated on pictures such as NATIVE LAND and we had the good fortune to have him as the chair and one of the master teachers in the program. Leo provided a remarkable standard for the program. Artistically he was a powerful force. No one could doubt his ethics or integrity as an artist. He was deeply respected by all of the students even if they did not always agree with him. His take on filmmaking deeply affected me. Finally, there was my experience working as the New York line producer of Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS in the fall semester of 1972. This made NO LIES inevitable since I needed to do a thesis work and had only limited time to write, shoot and edit it starting in January 1973 since I was the sole graduate student in a prototype one-year MFA program. If I did not direct a film I would not graduate.

I knew as a producer that I should do a work that would be “easy” to make. Limited locations, interior practical location, a short shoot, few actors, low shooting ratio, no period costumes, no score, etc. Keep it really simple. The work was based on an unpublished video called THE RAPE TAPE in which a number of women who were raped talked about their experiences. This early video diary was produced Jenny Goldberg (and three other women) using a Sony Porta Pack (who was the sound person on NO LIES.). It was a deeply moving work that provided much of the material for the actress Shelby Leverington who plays the woman in NO LIES to base her performance around. The location selected was Muffy Meyer’s apartment. Meyer was editing documentaries (GRAY GARDENS) with Ellen Hovde (who became her film business partner) at the Maysles. They were close friends of Charlotte Zwerin (who was the original editor of AN AMERICAN FAMILY who also resigned from the project) and was a resident filmmaker at the Mayseles. While I did not know the Raymonds (or Gilbert) at this time, I was responding to their work (without seeing it)—people who had a very strong emotional reaction to the ethics of this film surrounded me. It was the talk at many a dinner. My concern about the nature of the documentary was ongoing because of my relationship with these filmmakers. It cut across a range of films and the expediencies of my required thesis work forced me to think continually about DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY and another fiction film from the period called A SAFE PLACE (directed by Henry Jaglom).

My fascination with this form is directly connected to my interest in the relationships between:

a. The filmmaker (Block) and the subjects—the “cameraman” and “his subject”

b. The filmmaker (Block) and the audience.

c. The audience/viewer and the film (from the point-of-view of the audience)\

This tripartite relationship is clear to see in NO LIES, I abuse (a) the subject with an insensitive filmmaker, (b) undermine the audience’s relationship with the filmmaker, by making him unlikable and unethical and (c) abuse the spectator by pretending to present the truth and lying. In this case, (unlike a “real” documentary), I am not in the film but manipulating it by using a non-fictional form to tell a fictional story. The filmmaker/cameraman who is very much a part of the NO LIES story is actually a character playing the filmmaker. In the traditional “real” work the filmmaker is, well, the filmmaker. While we are used to talking about the filmmaker and the subject (a) and the audience and the film (c), NO LIES is really about the filmmaker manipulating the audience (b). ALL filmmakers in both dramatic and non-fiction forms do this. However, in the non-fiction form the filmmaker has a responsibility to the subject. By manipulating the film, the filmmaker is manipulating reality. In a non-fiction, work the subject is a real person and not an actor. But real life is not “dramatic” within the convention of film time. It needs to be structured and edited into film form; the lack of action in real life needs to be accelerated. The structure of film allows for this manipulation of time with the use of editing. While picture logic allows us to see events as they really happen, this is usually not acceptable to audiences because “reality” is slow and not usually dramatic and filmmakers are almost never filmmaking at the “right” moment. Filmmakers therefore need to use the device of telling us what happened rather than showing us what happened. The non-fiction film is formed in the editing room to tell the story in a dramatic fashion from the material that is shot. The editor pushes the narrative elements of the shot material together to make it flow in a cinematic way—faster. They depend on the filmmakers to be there at the key moments to film the story as it happens. If they miss filming the story the filmmakers either have to reenact the story, have the subjects tell us about what happened (voice over or interview), provide a card or perhaps tell us in their own words what happened. Since most of the time, filmmakers miss these key moments; the documentary film is always rushing to catch up with the story.

The paradigm shift between Gilbert’s/Raymonds’ AN AMERICAN FAMILY and Cutler’s AMERICAN HIGH and THE RESIDENTS is that the filmmakers (the crews shooting the films) will have their footage radically broken up and there is no attempt made to show it as a whole. The sequences are diced and split by the editors into fragments that are intercut with other fragments so that the hour work has a more intense pacing caused by the fragmentation of the stories. As soon as the action (or story) slows, the filmmakers cut to another story and cut back to that story later. The multiple filmmaking crews become part of an industrial process—making a collective story rather than allowing the filmmakers to “create” a story of just what they shoot. There is no “director” but only producers, directors of photography, editors, story editors and other supervisors.

The Raymonds are credited as the “filmmakers” of AN AMERICAN FAMILY but the “authorship” is difficult to pin down. There is no “director” credit given. AN AMERICAN FAMILY runs the shot sequences far longer, stays with the action/characters and allows the pacing to be far less frenetic. It’s focus is also smaller, on a family, and not on a dozen or so high school students. Both works are character driven. AMERICAN HIGH focuses on the students and their interrelations. AN AMERICAN FAMILY’s focus on the lives of the family members. NO LIES is a sequence that could be in any of these films—except the filmmakers would not be part of the action. The “fly-on-wall” film crew who in reality is interacting with the subjects is the hidden secret of both of these series. The subjects tell the crew when something is going to happen and they happen to be there to film it, or if they miss it, they can stage it or interview the subjects about what they missed. The crew is alerted to the coming drama and the results are covered. They know what is going to happen before it happens and sometimes nothing happens until the crew is present.

NO LIES follows the strategy or style of AN AMERICAN FAMILY for two reasons: it gives the work the appearance of being a reality and the story line is very simple. (My 1974 work, SPEEDING predates the fragmentation style of AMERICAN HIGH since it is an intercut story of a number of real people and actors playing real people.) The audience does not want to observe the two edits of cutting the three shots into one in NO LIES. Like the work of Cutler NO LIES was actually shot on video, at least the rehearsal stage. (THE NO LIES REHEARSAL TAPES) using now primitive Sony porta-pack video equipment. The use of film was mandated by the unavailability of high quality hand held video equipment. The sense of reality is captured by the conceit of the work, the whole work is presented as a single-take-truth (or a non-edited work) and hence could not be a lie. Audiences believe single continuous shots. While the docu-series is always presented as the truth despite the fictional style of the editing. Reality rarely is interesting on today’s MTV driven (or VH1, whatever..) for 15 straight minutes. (Are there any interesting 15 minutes (without cuts) in any film in our cannon?) We require fragmentations to heighten the drama of the moment. Fragmentation of the plots so that the work presents multiple plots to intercut. Since I was trying to make a point about making films about real people, NO LIES suggests it is possible to craft reality without hurting anyone.

I love what Cutler and company are dong to the non-fiction form and share his work to show that the form is continuing to evolve. His work, for me, is still ethically provocative. In the last 30 years because of media, subjects one would think are more accustomed to the media intruding on their lives. They allow their trials, their arrests and their lives to be captured. With Winona Ryder real life adventures captured on store video surveillance cameras and alleged criminals caught in the act on shows like COPS and a host of programs like SURVIVORS and numerous dating shows we see hundreds of hours of “real” programs. In addition, the genre is being expanded in works like FRONTIER HOUSE where real people play roles, in this case frontier families.

Unlike Michael Moore’s fake non-fiction works, the cameraman/filmmaker in my work is allowing the character to be truthful (within the context of the fiction) and, unlike his works, we are intentionally betraying the audiences’ trust. We are after all fiction and while we are pretending to be non-fiction, we are not non-fiction. Moore, on the other hand, is using the technique of NO LIES but is telling the spectator (and the subjects) that he is being truthful. If ROGER AND ME was a fiction, with actors instead of real people, it would be fine. Alas, Moore is a documentary liar. His works holds up its subjects for ridicule and scorn. We laugh at these real people who, in some cases, are being presented in a false light by Moore. Compare this to the respect with which the subjects are treated by Cutler or the Raymonds and Gilbert.

What then is “fake?” ROGER AND ME has a number of “fake” scenes and/or depictions of characters but the filmmaker tells us that this is a “documentary.” My work rings true but is a fiction. It is “fake” carefully built as truth (but is labeled as fiction in its credits). While the actual rape is a fiction, the two characters are a fiction, the emotions and feelings the women shows in her interview, while acted, read as “truth” to the spectators and to experts. Even the New York City police when using the work in training in the 1980s asked me for the “name of the officer who interviewed the woman in the film.” Clearly, there is (or was) a training problem in police departments with the officers who interview rape victims. This came out repeatedly in researching the film. The New York Police training group wanted to interview the officer(s) on video who interviewed the actress in NO LIES and use the interviews with the film for training purposes. (I’d love to have a copy of that interview tape.)

Sound recordists Jenny Goldberg with Alec Hirschfield

Looking to the future. For the past six months, I have been working on my third work in this genre. What is interesting to me is to continue to play on the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject and the audience. I want the cameraman to again cross the line and home in on the subject who clearly does not want to expose her feelings. He, like the television news people and Mr. Moore, wants to get his “Roger” on film regardless of how “Roger” feels about being on film at any moment of vulnerability. I want that moment I experienced once in a UCLA film class after a screening of the NO LIES sequel SPEEDING? when a student asked, “How to you happen to film movie stars getting speeding tickets?” It is the moment of “ah hah!” in the audience, wanting to believe that the actor is the real person getting caught on film rather than the actor playing a character who is in a fictional work.

What is critical is that the spectators become more sophisticated reading the film text being presented. They need to understand how easy it is to manipulate the form so that it appears to be the “truth” when it is not the truth. NO LIES should have been called, ALL LIES. We all believed the fiction of the boom or the MCI/Worldcom or Enron reports. We wanted to believe that the auditors, the government officials, the bankers, the brokers and the analysts were telling the truth. Trillions of dollars have disappeared. The investors, like the spectators, want to believe what they are told. Everything has changed since I made NO LIES, but I feel that everything is still the same.

Mitchell W. Block is executive director of Direct Cinema Limited ( a non-profit film and video distributor. He executive produced the Academy Award winning documentary BIG MAMA in 2000. For the past 23 years, he has been an adjunct professor and is currently teaching independent producing for the Peter Stark Producing Program in the School of Cinema-Television at USC. He consults, lectures, writes and continues to work on a wide range of film projects ranging from documentaries to features. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

©2002 All Rights Reserved, MWB

Images: (From Original Article)

NO LIES (Block, Alec Hirschfeld and Shelby Leverington during the shooting, 1973)

RESIDENTS (The doctors as they are being shot for publicity, 2002)

Filmography Notes:

NO LIES (1973) Produced and directed by Mitchell W. Block is available from Direct Cinema Limited

SPEEDING (1975) Produced and directed by Block is also available from Direct Cinema

note: CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM consists of a pilot which is a staged document and the series. The pilot was done I believe in 1999.


Anonymous said...

I'd love to see this documentary. Could you tell me where/how to get it? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

could you tell me how to view this film--where it's available for purchase or online?

mwblock said...

NO LIES can be viewed on the Direct Cinema Ltd. site.