Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Te’o, Catfish, and Truth in Documentary Filmmaking

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For many of us who caught the recent headlines about Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football player who is apparently caught up in a hoax, it has been very tempting to turn away. Who needs to hear the latest salacious gossip about a semi-celebrity and a fake, social media girlfriend?

Questions of verifiable truths have dogged documentary filmmakers dating back to Robert Flaherty’s day. And, if we are interested in the media and the state of American culture, then we really ought to give Te’o at least a good think. I say this partly because Te’o’s case is popularly referred to as a “Catfish” situation – dubbed so because of the 2010 documentary, by the same name, about its director Nev Schulman, who was part of a similar hoax.

What’s so infuriating about both Te’o and Schulman is that we don’t really know what’s real and what’s not real (I’m not holding my breath with hopes that the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Te’o will come out tonight in his interview with Katie Couric). The original Catfish documentary went by the tagline, “Not based on a true story, not inspired by true events, just true.” It’s a shell game of moving pieces that keeps the audience in the dark. Did Schulman know that the beautiful, young woman sending him messages was actually a dowdy older mom? If not, what exactly did he know and not know? Truth is slippery as it is, but even more so when it’s mediated, involving people we don’t know, who are delivered to us in edited clips.

Pretty much every documentary filmmaker must tackle the issue of truth and how best to represent it. It’s vital for the notion of Rashomon ­— how our individual subjectivity affects the way we experience the same event — to dog filmmakers.  The filmmaker’s job is to present reality in as honest a way as possible, even though there’s never one complete truth. It’s something filmmakers make peace with, and some are willing to even play with, as seen in last year’s The Imposter, and 2003’s The Kid Stays in the Picture.

These notions might be frustrating for many social action filmmakers who are trying to shed light on injustices, but liberating for others who consider documentary filmmaking more an act of expression than reportage. (And then there are those filmmakers, like Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, content to put a foot in each camp.)

Ultimately, the “Catfish” phenomenon puts the onus on documentary filmmakers to be on their toes more than before in regards to the truth that they hope to capture (or create, if you’re on the more skeptical side of the spectrum). Not only are audiences more apt to question the veracity of what they see in a documentary; the subjects themselves are far more comfortable with re-presenting themselves for the camera. So, filmmakers, audiences, and subjects are now slipping and sliding on the same elusive slope of truth.

As tempting as it would be to dismiss Schulman as a profiteer and Catfish to be a documentary sideshow, like a circus freak act, I can’t help watch it and see glimpses of deep honesty about issues of gender, love, sexuality, loneliness and alienation. As much as Catfish is an infuriating tease, I like the documentary and the new MTV show inspired by it. It is engaging. It captures me.

This is an exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker (and viewer), but consider that the titular phenomenon comes from the idea that a catfish supposedly keeps captured cod fish lively – essentially the function of a person who is perpetuating a lie.

In a way, that makes us all cod on our way to someone’s dinner plate. Doesn’t it?

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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