Essay: Matters of Fact

April 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The hopeful if erroneous idea that a fact discloses the truth of a situation may account for the great number of documentary films or quasi- documentaries produced these days. By “these days,” I’m looking back a year or so, and into the future, since several of these movies have proved commercial as well as artistic successes; there will be more.

A list of the moment includes: “The Fog of War,” about former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Vietnam; “Capturing the Friedmans,” about a highly unusual family to put it politely; “My Architect,” about a son’s search for the strange mind and soul of the architect, Louis Kahn; “Touching the Void,” about a near-fatal mountain climb in the Andes; “Aileen,” a documentary riding tandem with the movie, “Monster,” Charlie Theron’s astonishing portrayal of a serial killer;

ACTRESS: You can’t kill people.

ACTRESS: Says who?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: “Charlie” on the genius of Charlie Chaplin; “American Splendor,” done as a comic strip biography, with the appearances of the real central figure, Harvey Pekar, and a revival of “The Battle of Algiers,” which, while using no documentary footage, nonetheless creates the feel of one of the best documentaries ever made.

All these films popping up at once may be nothing more than a coincidence, or a sign that fiction is last-gasping in movies as it is said to be in literature. But these works also suggest that the truth is better served by the depiction of an actual occurrence. Creative artists generally have believed the opposite. Dickens opened “A Christmas Carol” with the declaration that Marley was indisputably dead, to announce that being dead did not disqualify Marley from life, or keep Scrooge from the spirit world. Cervantes opened “Don Quixote” by stating that the specifics of his hero’s life were unimportant; the narrator was going to get at the truth. Yet here and now with these documentaries comes the implied proposition that if one sees what happened, what really happened, then the truth will be set free.

WOMAN: You’re trying to make it look like I was crazy at all times.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: So we gaze at the oversize, mad face of Aileen Warmus and we are to believe we’ve plumbed the heart of darkness, or at the distracted face of Harvey Pekar and believe we understand the extraordinary ordinary life. Or we climb the Andes, as it was really climbed, and thus know what it means to be waiting for death, alone.

In “Touching the Void,” one climber deserts the other, to save his own life. Do we understand such an act because it actually happened? Or do we understand more about the desertion of our fellow beings from Conrad’s “Lord Jim”? It is a practice of certain current films to announce that they are “based on a true story.” This idea, that if it really happened it must be true, may derive from journalism, which trusts the fact to be revelatory of the truth. And yet we know from long experience that no one understands anything that has happened. Not anything — ever.

Again we watch “The Battle of Algiers,” this time round as an analogue to events in the Middle East. Does anyone better grasp the dance of death of occupiers and terrorists simply because it happened before? One could make a stronger case that real life is more incomprehensible than fiction because it is not in anyone’s control. All documentaries return to a scene or to a person with the hope that a review will disclose the truth.

Why did Louis Kahn create three families and then ignore them? Why did McNamara treat war as a math problem? Why the Friedmans? Why Aileen? The “why” is a journalist’s question, too, but it is never answered by the current event. So time passes. And someone wants to create a documentary to look again at a story that was impossible to understand, like the story of an 11-year-old girl abducted and murdered in Florida, or the story of another war in a distant place, or of airplanes drilling into skyscrapers on a sunny day. Did you see that? What happened? I’m Roger Rosenblatt.