In the age of alternative facts, decoding truth in documentary

The emcee of the live game show hoped to crowdsource his way to a revelation.

“Make some noise if you think the film is true," the host, Brian Babylon of National Public Radio, egged on audience members. They cheered loudly.

"And make some noise if you think it's bogus as ..." he said, to even more whooping.

The crowd had gathered at a college-town music venue late on a Saturday night for "Gimme Truth," an event dedicated to the playful exploration of media veracity. They were at True/False, a film festival dedicated to, well, the playful — and at times not so playful — exploration of media veracity. For both points and pride, audience members and a panel of documentarians (including "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James) were seeking to determine whether short films created for the occasion were nonfiction or invented — documentaries or fake news.

"Everything is plausible," Babylon said after the screening of one short. "But did it really happen‎?"

Documentary is the most hybrid of media creations. Lacking the full-blown invention of scripted movies but also the hard-knuckled reality of broadcast news, it occupies a more powerful in-between. Like scripted film, it has the power to suspend assumptions and persuade us into new beliefs. But it does so without asking us to leave reality behind; documentary actively wants to shape our world and increase its comprehensibility.

True/False has long been preoccupied with questions of honesty and reality. Founded by Columbia natives David Wilson and Paul Sturtz in 2004, the four-day film festival has evolved into the country’s premiere documentary venue, its trends taking root here and devolving to pop culture the way fashion styles migrate from the runway to the bargain bin. Every March, Oscar-winning filmmakers like Laura Poitras, Roger Ross Williams and Alex Gibney head to this curated gathering and –with every game show, screening, party and monologue performance—probe issues of truth and falsehood.

Those themes vibrated in a new way at this year's event, held last weekend. At a time of fake news and alternative facts, when inflated inauguration numbers and presidential wiretapping are presented as plausible scenarios — as interpretations ‎of reality rather than reimaginings of it — the very subject of documentary elicits charged questions.

How should arbiters of truth treat leaders who openly flout the idea? Do they have a greater responsibility to be more factual — moving away from subjective tendencies — when politics twist and distort?

Should modern tolls such as characters and storytelling be deemphasized as facts grow more important? Or should they be leaned on more heavily?

Will Americans in the Trump era look to documentary like a seasick passenger looks to the horizon: as a stabilizing reference point?

At bottom, what are the obligations of documentarians to be truthful in the age of alternative facts? And how influential, in the fog of fakery, can they even be?

“There’s a certain sobriety in the air,” Sturtz said. “We’re sorting out what the very idea of documentary means when every civic, cultural and political asset feels like it’s under assault.”


Unless you’re a part of the exterminator community, “Rat Film” would not appear to be a movie that contends with urgent issues.

A free-associative meditation on the rat problem in Baltimore (the movie opens with cellphone footage of one rodent trying and failing to escape a city garbage can), it would seem to fall into the category of the marginal quirky.

But a closer look at Theo Anthony’s debut, which premiered at True/False, reveals a more socially conscious movie. By tracing how the rat problem has historically been handled in a largely segregated city, “Rat Film” subtly politicizes the rodents, painting a damning portrait of discrimination. The rat becomes a symbol (with coy reference to Richard Wright’s “Native Son”) of black-white oppression in the city.

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Chris Alexakis