truth, Truth, or whatever?
The War Tapes exacerbates the issues of truth that we've been dealing with throughout the semester — what is truth? What is objectivity? What is an authentic account of an event?
Nonfiction narrative, whether in film, literature, or journalism, is always running into this issue. James Frey's A Million Little Pieces drew harsh criticism last year when it was discovered that the critically acclaimed book, which Oprah had chosen for her popular book club, was a "fake" — incidents in the memoir had been fabricated or exaggerated. Unsurprisingly, readers across the country were self-righteously indignant, and it seems likely that Frey will never write again. I don't know Frey or why he chose to write what he did. It's possible that he figured that more salacious details sell more books, which is not a surprising conclusion in our day and age.
In Frey's defense, though, one has to wonder: even if the actual events did not occur, does it make the story less true? What does truth in a narrative entail? The problem is partly that nonfiction walks a fine line between objective fact (whatever that means) and subjective experience. I am less wedded to fact than to realism; I'd rather know the truth of experience than the truth as is, which sounds radical, but is not that new. Many artists use surreal language or images to show a truth that is hard to tell, a truth that maybe can't be rendered merely by factual retelling.
In fact, when it comes to the documentaries that we've been watching in class, this seems all the more relevant. Criticisms of national media aside, we in this class are, generally speaking, informed Brown students. We are exposed to reports of Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, we see the grainy, night-vision images of explosions, we look at pictures of the torture in Abu Ghraib, the maps and schematics and diagrams. We've seen it all, but watching the news is not going to give you an idea of how it really is out there. Yet, the War Tapes, with its far less comprehensive amount of raw data and information, gives its viewer a slice of experience — a few completely subjective perspectives from three soldiers, what they've seen, what they've heard, and how they feel about it. As Maj. Duncan Domey said in class (and I hope I got his rank right), that is really what it's like.
A.O. Scott mentioned The War Tapes in a larger article about "Inconvenient Truths" that was also posted on this blog ... in it, he writes that the film is "one of the most formally radical films of 2006, even as Ms. Scranton’s method seems, in retrospect, head-smackingly obvious..." I find myself agreeing with the sentiment, and I attribute it to the nebulous nature of the pursuit of truth that we find ourselves in, especially in this conflict. We watch films and narratives of some of the most complex issues of our time — problems that don't have solutions, wars that don't have easy outs. There is no easy truth, at least not as far as I can see. We are bombarded by souped-up war spin on one hand and images of torture and a hanging Saddam Hussein on the other. How can a film get to the truth of a conflict that engages thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people? How can there only be one truth there? Perhaps I am more cavalier with the idea of one objective truth than most, but I don't think that any one person or any one film is going to expose the heart of what is wrong with our world. I'm not even sure I believe in objective truth; a camera is biased to begin with. Rather than despair, though, at the inability to find such truth, I think the approach in The War Tapes offers a certain amount of hope: we can get the small truths, the individual experiences, and maybe that can shed light on the larger truth.
We spent a lot of time in class discussing the authenticity of Alex Gibney's portrayal of torture in Taxi Cab to the Dark Side. One scene, probably about 5-10 minutes long, was almost entirely dramatized with the exception of the narration of excerpts from the log the soldiers kept to record their interrogation procedures. The validity of this as a method of narration is still open to debate, but in my eyes this was an example of portraying the truth of experience. I didn't think I was watching actual footage of the torture at any point, but the blurring of fact and dramatized narration in that scene, for me, drove the point home. I didn't want to know it was staged. No one can know what that scene was like, because we have no footage of it, but Gibney tries to shed light on it with his (in my mind) well-edited but dramatized portrayal of the event.
But then, my particular bias comes through — I believe a documentary has a duty to tell the truth, but I am willing to accept, if not already convinced, that the truth comes in many different forms. I'd be interested to hear: what do you expect from a documentary or nonfiction film? Do you believe that total objective truth can be found and portrayed? What is the value of subjective truth or perspective, if any? And does all of this even matter? Why do we care about truth so much?