directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp
BELIEF: THE POSSESSION OF JANET MOSES
directed by David Stubbs
by Walter Chaw The line between documentary and fiction filmmaking is blurry. Better--more accurate--to say there's no difference at all: that documentary is just a genre in and of itself. Documentaries are products of points of view, of editing, of premise. You could film someone reading a phone book, but even that's a choice. Where to put the camera; why do it in the first place? Consider the Heisenberg Principle as well, this notion that the nature of anything changes once it's observed. Documentary as "truth" is an interesting philosophical question. It's sold as such, used politically, manipulated to serve purposes contrary to the idea of objective reality, but documentaries are never objective. Indeed, they challenge the very idea that the product of any endeavour could be truly objective. It's an interesting phenomenon in our technological wasteland that video "evidence" of malfeasance has proven inconclusive in courts of law. Replays in professional sports have only muddied the playing field. Everything is subject to interpretation and the product of someone's decision made somewhere along the way.
The prime modern example of this tension is Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, his landmark work about the murder of a police officer and the arrest and conviction of a man whom Morris believed to be innocent. After the movie's release, the case was reopened and the subject was exonerated. He proceeded to sue Morris for profiting off his case. In the film, Morris recreated the events of that night with actors, stylized cinematography, and a mesmerizing Philip Glass score. It was criticized for being a documentary that introduced fictional elements and approaches into a pristine format, but he didn't break any rules because there aren't any to break. Steve James's Stevie pushes the envelope again by having the filmmaker actively, on camera, interfere with the life of his subject as the picture unfolds. He talks about his own guilt at having abandoned Stevie when Stevie was a child in the Big Brother program. He lends an adult Stevie some money. Far from introducing corrupting influences into the sacrosanct documentary form, however, what Morris and James did (and what Herzog does in his later documentaries) is underscore the idea that nothing captured on film is free from subjective choice. Andrew Jarecki told me once about how one of the subjects of his Capturing the Friedmans, matriarch Elaine, objected to Jarecki while watching herself say something on film that she hadn't in fact said that. The documentary underscores the idea that nothing is real.
Consider the case of Dean Fleischer-Camp's 53-minute Fraud, culled from hundreds of hours--years' worth--of self-captured YouTube footage posted by an anonymous family that, much like the Friedmans, just likes to look at themselves a lot. The patriarch, Gary, in particular likes to look at his wife's ass. It's sort of charming that he's so into his spouse. It's sort of creepy that he's uploaded all these videos of him leering at her through his camera phone onto the Internet. One of the fascinations of Capturing the Friedmans (and one of the chief criticisms of The Blair Witch Project) is the idea that people would ever continue to film themselves during moments of duress. As time goes on and phones become increasingly embedded into our minute-to-minute existence, it gets easier to believe that we have a more "real" relationship with the world through our devices than we do by any other means. To what extent are we now only hot for our wives if we can view them through a screen? At some point this technology of ours has become mentor, friend, and lover--or, at least, the only prism through which those appellations matter anymore. Fraud on one level is about that: What's happened to us that we sit around the dinner table with a seat saved for a portal?
Fleischer-Camp's most interesting gambit, though, is inserting a few elements to build days of mundane documentation into a heist intrigue where chasing the American Dream means mortgaging the future for the promise of instant gratification through material acquisition. They burn down their house, this all-American clan, and collect on the insurance for a cross-country bender. On the lam, although with time to stop off at Hersheypark and the Big Apple, Gary's constant giggling begins as irritation but turns into something sounding a lot like desperation towards the end. An exercise in editing and a masterclass in filmmaking, Fraud is itself is a fraud but no more or less so than any other documentary claiming at objectivity. More, in its careful manipulations, it reveals larger truths about who we are at this moment in time: measuring out our lives not in coffee spoons, but in generations of the iPhone. Fraud is an indictment of a lot of things, mainly of exactly how shallow and filtered our lives have become as we focus our attention down, down, down into little lighted representations of friendship, sex, family, and love.
New Zealander David Stubbs's Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses is also a conversation about family and love in its real-life tale of how the titular Janet Moses, a Maori mother of two, was murdered by her family's best intentions when they believed that a mental breakdown was evidence of demonic possession. Using trial transcripts and police interviews, the film recruits a game cast to portray the hysteria that burns through a close-knit clan, fuelled by the belief that a statue of a lion has transferred a "makutu," a curse, to poor Janet (Kura Forrester), causing her to gaze off into the middle distance and, sometimes, scream. They force water over her and into her. They stand as a group with her in the shower, then hold her down when she struggles against them. Stubbs sticks with these re-enactments until the final third when he inserts news footage from the 2009 trial--a jarring effect that reminds that the film is just that, and that whatever's been represented in the meat of it can't penetrate the downcast looks of the five family members convicted of Janet's murder, and the five acquitted. It's fascinating, if probably unintentional, that there is created this idea that whatever happened in that room can never really ever be penetrated, no matter the enthusiasm of its reimagining.
Belief comments on itself and its medium in that way: Documentary can only ever be shallow; truth doesn't emerge until there's a third agency, an audience, to lend it subjective interpretation. Belief is about a lot of things. The only thing it doesn't have much to teach about, alas, is the death of Janet Moses. This is despite Stubbs's best efforts to embellish with music, voiceover, slow-motion. And it's despite the cast's commitment. The extent to which one believes the family was acting out of love is something dependent upon an individual's experience of familial love and, conversely, the level of his or her hostility to organized religion and superstition. The movie challenges the instinct to condescend to people of lower income and perhaps lower education, as indicated by the Moses' willingness to fall in, with fatal consequences, with superstition. It presents the "exorcism" as something that steadily escalates from a few kind words and gentle embraces to crushing and drowning and everyone screaming and the children hidden away in a back bedroom. This was a mob, essentially, with a mob's mentality. A few lines touch on how they'd all gone without sleep for days. It's an explanation--and it isn't one. Belief reminds in these moments of the strategy taken by Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, which offered recitations from the saint's actual testimony with painstaking reconstructions of her questioning and martyrdom. Belief is more straightforward than Fraud in its conception and execution, but the questions it raises about the form and function of documentary are similar. There's truth in both, though neither have much to do with their subject. The truth in documentaries is generally in the spaces between their conception and execution and in our prejudices in consuming them. It's Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn": At the end, you don't know much more than you did at the beginning, but it's all you need to know.