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Sundance 2012: When Documentary Subjects Attack

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When the 2012 Sundance Film Festival begins this Thursday, attendees will be treated to the premiere of a real-life version of When Documentary Subjects Attack!

That’s not really the name of a movie. It’s just the latest conflict between the subjects of a documentary and its filmmakers. This one, premiering on Sundance’s prestigious opening night, involves Lauren Greenfield, the director of The Queen of Versailles, and David Siegel, who filed a lawsuit against Greenfield and Sundance for defamation, in particular protesting the description of his life in the Sundance promotional material as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story.

Screenshot from Queen of Versailles

Still from The Queen of Versailles


Indeed, most of the time, documentary subjects savor their roles in a film, supporting it on the festival circuit as it rolls out. The directors stand in front of the screen, and the audience relishes the opportunity to see the subjects — whether they’re kids from the hood, aging rock stars, or ex-cons — join them to discuss the film.

Alas, increasingly, documentary releases have been marred by disputes. Michael Rappaport’s Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which premiered last year at Sundance, was released with a constant thorn in its side: The front man of the rap group that’s the subject of the film, Q-Tip, disowned the project. He refused to attend Sundance to support it, and criticized Rappaport. Also last year, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, about a sordid press scandal involving Joyce McKinney, became a multi-bout, McKinney-versus-Morris tour. McKinney filed suit against Morris, claiming she’d been tricked into being in the film. She showed up at numerous screenings and heckled the film from the audience.

In the Versailles case, Sundance described the film as such:

Jackie and David were triumphantly constructing the biggest house in America — a sprawling 90,000 square-foot palace inspired by Versailles — when their timeshare empire collapses and their house is foreclosed. Their rags-to-riches-to-rags story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream.

According to Siegel, he asked Greenfield to make corrections to the description, asserting that his story wasn’t one of failure. Sundance made the following change:

Jackie and David were triumphantly constructing the biggest house in America — a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot palace inspired by Versailles — when their timeshare empire falters due to the economic crisis. Their rags-to-riches-to-rags story reveals the innate virtues and flaws of the American Dream.

Other than the word “collapses,” not much of a difference, right? That’s what Siegel thought, so he sued, saying that the statement is still false and defamatory. He pointed out in his suit that some 12,000 websites had reprinted this description, making the damage to his name widespread.

The longer description on Sundance’s website omits the last “to-rags.” It’s credited to “J.C.,” festival director John Cooper:

With the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, The Queen of Versailles follows billionaires Jackie and David’s rags-to-riches story to uncover the innate virtues and flaws of the American dream. We open on the triumphant construction of the biggest house in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles. Since a booming time-share business built on the real-estate bubble is financing it, the economic crisis brings progress to a halt and seals the fate of its owners. We witness the impact of this turn of fortune over the next two years in a riveting film fraught with delusion, denial, and self-effacing humor.

Lauren Greenfield instinctively knows what questions to ask, when to ask them, and, more importantly, where to put her camera to mine this overflowing treasure of events. She constructs a series of glowing metaphors to concoct a fascinating character study of parents, children, pets, and household employees as their privileged existence turns upside down. The end result is a portrait of a couple who dared to dream big but lose, still maintaining their unique brand of humility. – J.C.

As a public representative of one of those 12,000 websites, I can speak directly to this case. In December, I posted the list of documentaries at Sundance 2012 using the festival’s description verbatim, then a list of the documentaries I’m most excited to see in 2012. Versailles was one of them, and I used the Sundance press release as the basis for describing the subjects as ending up “in ruin.” So, well, now we know there’s another side to that story.

Frank Evers, one of the producers of Versailles, and one of the people named in the suit, had emailed me before the suit was announced, and suggested I change my description. He indicated that mine wasn’t accurate, and that the subjects of his film were not “in ruin.” But stopping the spread of information is like putting your thumb in a dike that’s overflowing with 5 trillion gigabytes of data. It just ain’t gonna happen. (At least, not without spending a ton of money to suppress negative search engine results.)

Of course, everyone knows that controversy sells, and Versailles has received a heap of publicity it wouldn’t have had without the suit. The $75,000 in compensation mentioned in the lawsuit would be a recession-rate special for the equivalent in ad buys and publicity expenses.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki