Paco de Onis

Paco de Onís, producer of The Reckoning (POV 2009) and the upcoming Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (POV 2012), responds to the KONY 2012 phenomenon.

KONY 2012, an online video that has now been viewed 100 million times (and counting), was produced by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children with aims to disarm the Lord’s Resistance Army, an African militia, and its leader, Joseph Kony.

I’ve followed Invisible Children for years and we’ve often crossed paths on the international justice circuit. They’ve been on the Kony case for a long time, targeting American youth in their campaigns, but also producing a lot of money in the process. They’ve been working on making Kony a celebrity for years, and now they’ve succeeded. They’ve created a Billy the Kid or Al Capone for our times.

Since I became aware of Kony during the making of our film The Reckoning in 2006, I’ve been interested in the practical approaches to apprehending him, which raises the questions, How is he getting arms and ammunition? Who is aiding him from the outside? Who pays his satellite phone bill? Doesn’t the satellite phone company know exactly where he is every time he turns on the phone, or even when it’s off?

If I can locate my iPhone from my laptop, why can’t international intelligence operatives, and the U.S. army advisors on the ground in Uganda, figure out where he is? We found Osama bin Laden, but we can’t seem to find Kony? These questions make me wonder what’s going on.

I have no conspiracy theory about this, but I do wonder why the issue of how Kony survives as an armed and connected warlord with backers, is never addressed.

Learn more about the International Criminal Court and international justice on POV’s companion site for The Reckoning or visit the official site for The Reckoning at Skylight Pictures. Granito: How to Nail a Dictator premieres this summer on POV.

  • Asher G.

    How about ‘F for Fake’ and ‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm’?

  • Birgitte Stærmose

    This is an interesting article. I really like your attempt to brand the hybrid film. By the way this maybe should include a new term that does not sound like a car. We should try and come up with that! I very much like Robert Kohler’s term ‘a cinema-in-between’, because I do not believe that the really interesting and challenging hybrid is indeed only a documentary. It defies definition. It lies in between. That is the true challenge of this form of filmmaking. Unfortunately it is not a catchy phrase so a distributor would probably not find this very useful.

    However, looking at your list I was interested in how it is centered on American filmmaking. There has been so many interesting examples of this in Europe and a much bigger openness to and willingness to screen this form of filmmaking from the European film festivals. An exemplary and extremely interesting filmmaker of this form is the Austrian, Ulrich Seidl, – having gone from documentary into staging and lately working in an extremely fictionalized form he makes for an interesting study of the development of the hybrid. Another great hybrid filmmaker is the Portuguese Pedro Costa. Having come from fiction and moved into working with reality, staging a group of Cape Verdians in the slums of Lisbon in the monumental Fontainhas Trilogy, he should be included in any list of groundbreaking hybrid work.

    I also wonder if maybe the fact that the American documentary scene has been so very absorbed by the question of ethics has stood in the way for this form to actually really flourish in the US. I became aware of this when I had a short ‘hybrid’ film, OUT OF LOVE, that had an extremely successful festival life all over Europe (awards at Berlinale, Rotterdam, EFA Best European Short nomination, etc), but was rejected by 14 American doc festivals until the brilliant people at True/False gave the film its first American screening almost two years after it premiered at the Berlinale. Here is an article where I talk amongst other things about this question of ethics an my position as a filmmaker in relation to the kids in the film: I do wonder if the true hybrid really mainly challenges the dogma on documentary ethics. I think that we should be open to this possibilty as we examine this as a potential new breakthrough in filmmaking.

    • Tom Roston

      Thanks, you’re right, I’m hopelessly narrow minded when it comes to the US vs International docs. I’ve got a couple in there (the Brits are represented and Polley is Canadian!) but I should indeed expand my horizons. I do agree that the ethics–see Jennifer Merin’s qualms about THE ACT OF KILLING–trip us Americans up. I, too, have issues, but when handled well, I think those issues can be dealt with.

  • Mr. William Lashley

    Well, the term “Docufiction” has been around for a while, but it has created as many arguments as it has settled.

    Okay, since you started with seven. I will name seven more:

    “Grass” – the 1925 travelogue / man-against-the-elements epic / documentary made by Merian C. Cooper (who went on to make “King Kong”), Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison about the struggle for survival among Bakhtiari pastoral nomads of central Iran during their annual migration through central Iran is another example of the documentary-as-adventure genre that provided documentary filmmaking with its initial commercial success. Running just over an hour, “Grass” was a blockbuster, as was “Chang”, the film he and his cinematographer friend Ernest Schoedsack made as a follow up. It was originally presented as a silent film, but later a score was added. Like “Nanook of the North”, it continues to be examined for ethnographic detail while it is acknowledged that it was intended as entertainment and made without scholarly or academic rigour.

    “Waltz With Bashir” – Ari Folman’s animated film of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon use the artifice of animation coupled with interviews of Israeli soldiers to put the animation into a “realistic” frame – and then shatters the simulation of time, memory, perspective and cinematic technique by ending with the actual footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

    “Triumph of the Will” ~ people tend to forget that Leni Riefenstahl originally conceived of this film as a documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. It is taught as a propaganda film, but a scrupulous examination of “documentary as propaganda” or when documentary is used as propaganda cannot ignore the impact and craft of this document, or the questions it raises about the documentary form. Although Riefenstahl regretted ever making the film, she also said, “I filmed the truth as it was then. Nothing more.” See also her brilliant 1938 two-part film, “Olympia”.

    “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” – this 2009 film about the insider who broke ranks with the National Security complex and revealed the staggering extent of the official deceit employed to sell the War in Vietnam to the American public relied on extensive reenactments and animation. It ranged widely, but kept the confessional tone of the film, Ellsberg explaining himself, and the animation and reenactments allowed the audience to sit and listen to his voice for lengthy sequences without that intimate conversational tone becoming tedious.

    “The Good Woman of Bangkok” – one of a number of fine films “hand made” by the Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke (who died last June), this self described “Docufiction” tells how O’Rourke became more than a John to the Thai prostitute, Aoi. He came to really care for her in spite of that “professional” relationship, but was unable to help Aoi return from the streets of Bangkok to her home in Northern Thailand. In spite of his promise to buy a rice farm for Aoi and her family, by the end of the film Aoi has returned to whoring in Patpong, another village girl caught up in the bright lights and economic grip of the global “sex tourism” industry. O’Rourke readily admits that sharing her story while sharing her bed has questioned his own “professional” identity as a documentarian. See also O’Rourke’s brilliant “Cannibal Tours”.

    “Far From Vietnam” (“Loin du Vietnam”) – more specifically examine here the twelve minute sequence “Camera-Eye”, created by Jean Luc Godard for this 1967 anti-imperialist compilation in support of the North Vietnamese. Although the other collaborators (Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, William Klein, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda) contributed sequences that undoubtedly hewed closer to the activist agenda, Jean Luc Godard created an indexical gem stone that still refracts the revolutionary feel of his life and times. In spite of his use of archival material, location shots of Vietnamese students and soldiers, some ludicrously “staged” re-enactments, and many interwoven shots of atrocities in Vietnam cut with the streets of Paris during the General Strike, Godard keeps the main focus literally on himself: Most of the shots in this film are of the camera, the lights, and the filmmaker obscured from view, hiding behind his kit. But then, Godard claims that the task of supporting the freedom fighters “means creating a Vietnam within ourselves.” It is possibly best at documenting how the technology of film, that unblinking “camera-eye” snaring you in a mechanical gaze and staring you down, is such an intrusive form of interrogation. This crosses the line between artifact and documentary and is a key “document” itself in the examination of Godard’s considerable oeuvre.

    “Latcho Drom” – Tony Gatlif’s 1993 classic follows the strictures of documentary in it’s use of a non-professional cast, but there is such a premium put on the performances of Roma musicians in the various global settings that the music is in no way “incidental”. The entire film is shot like a feature film and although there is no dialogue or narration in the “non-narrative” construction, the set musical pieces feel at times to be as stylized and editorially constructed as the studio sections of Martin Scorcese’s rockudrama “The Last Waltz”. I don’t think these would satisfy Frederick Wiseman’s standards of objectivity in representation, or that they even attempt to question the nature of their subjective approach, or that Wiseman and many other classic documentarians would consider either of these films documentaries. I do. What do you think?

    A few comments I would like to add. The entire post-modern critique of “exteriority’, “representation”, and “hyperrealism” has called the very intention of documentary into question, but it has also opened up the text/context /subtext continuum across the discipline by taking up the “concrete” role of the archival material of film and presenting it decontextualized as repurposed imagery (and sound) in mashups, montages and the like. Consider “The Clock”, an experimental art installation first presented in 2010 by Christian Marclay that tosses out the narrative and non-narrative tradition of story telling aside and opt for a strict adherence to actual chronological time, with his 24 hour extended montage of film clips of watches and clocks, synced to real time. And, yes, it takes 24 hours to watch the entire film. The question must be asked, is this a document of “movies” or something other than “life at twenty four frames per second”? Here the art film, challenges the production method (like Italian Neorealism, or “idies” once did), the distribution methods and the popular assumptions about what a film should be. And I think that challenge should resonate most powerfully in the realm of documentary.

    • Tom Roston

      Teach on, professor! These are great, some I had never heard of. I definitely agree about Waltz with Bashir. I’ll look into the others. Thanks.

  • Ulysses Koda

    Fantomes de Tanger (1998) is a great example, especially if you’re a Paul Bowles or William Burroughs fan.

  • Dalan McNabola

    What about Snow on tha Bluff? Not sure if it would qualify as a doc, but some of the footage was real.

  • Addison

    Errol Morris started all this back in ’88 with “The Thin Blue Line.” Documentary film theorist Bill Nichols suggested this kind of documentary be termed “reflexive.” Does no one care about Bill anymore?

  • Jonah Parker

    For-profit film studios with activist agendas can use private and taxpayer sheltered NGO funds to tell good stories (or “fibs”) with the ends supposedly justifying the means. That’s bad enough — think Diane Weyermann actually saying about Errol Morris & her disastrous pic with him SOP [paraphrase] “everyone knows we pay people to appear in docs but nobody says anything about it.” (Read: our little dirty secret as sanctimonious pseudo-journalists/storytellers for stoned Millennials.)

    But when Participant Media effectively tries to downplay or at least obfuscate where the the money comes from — a $100 million revolving line of credit from Qatar — — a Gulf State supporter of terrorist maneuvers and arms supplier to the region — and their exec marketing V.P.’s Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones secretly call up people in the industry to complain about those disclosures, this is Hollywood at its worst. The intelligence community wouldn’t call this type of activity “hybrid” filmmaking — it would be denoted “information operations,” i.e., psychological warfare. Target audience: documentary film festival audiences and the new cable doc channels and streaming vod for the kids.

    So much for transparency as a substitute for objectivity, and so much for Evan Shapiro and @pivot_tv claims for news literacy. Yes, the right wing, evangelical extremists probably are even worse than Participant Media and its ilk are at this — but why shouldn’t we hold the the self-righteous to the same standards? That is, the Koch brothers are just as guilty as Jim Berk and Jeff Skoll, but think back, not too long ago, about the documentary film community that once existed before it was contaminated with right wing extremist and Soros/Sundance funding? Now the game seems to be changing again, and many — but certainly not all — documentary filmmakers,who always kept themselves financialy alive by shooting television and other advertising & commercials, seem to be taking the information warfare/behavioral psych/strategic communications $. Have they lost their bearings as the business model migrates, like the Mad Men (& women) they may truly always have been?

    The phrase “documentary film” is relatively new — circa approx. 1924. Buts docs are so 1990. Ostensible Non-fiction narrative filmmaking is the ethical battleground now.

    Meanwhile, to end on a somewhat humorous note, some film companies are about to give out awards for how well their erstwhile toilet bowl obsessed Sr. V.P. executives (e.g. Elise Pearlstein) and corporate sponsors can eat from the most expensive restaurants and choicest purveyors of local produce — but that’s another comment for another time. Stay tuned.

  • Lisa Leeman

    Really appreciate your thoughtful posts about form & documentaries. I love seeing doc filmmakers play with form. It feels like there’s some invisible shifting line between re-enactment & hybrid form, and deceit… far be it for me to draw that line, but I know in my gut when a film has crossed that line… Some other ‘hybrid’ examples to add to the canon: Touching The Void; Man On Wire; Last Call at the Oasis; Might Times: The Children’s March; & The Swenkas, one of my all-time favorite films. Also, some of Jay Rosenblatt’s films. Chronicle of a Summer; Sans Soleil….

    • JoeS

      I agree that there is a line where a film falls into deceit – I think both EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP and CATFISH cross it. If I had to try and create a definition, it would be that as long as the artful filmmaking technique (animation, re-enactment, use of stock footage etc) is used to try and tell a straightforward truthful telling of the real life story it is ok. But, as in EXIT or CATFISH, when that technique fools or tricks the audience or adds “new” facts that may or may not even have occured, then it crosses that line.
      Inexact to be sure, but that is my ‘gut’ feeling.

  • Tom Roston

    Yes! I think it was playing at Hot Docs but I missed it. Gotta check it out

  • Tom Roston

    Hi. This is also in reply to some of the comments below. The grey area of judging docs for their manipulation of the truth can be very tricky. Not that I don’t do it as well. Just as I judge TRANSFORMERS for pandering to the lowest common denominator, in a way that isn’t just a formal critique but also almost a moral one (I’m offended by how stupid that movie is), I also judge docs that manipulate the truth. Saying you’re one thing when you’re something else can be a cool trick or an offensive one. Like Lisa says, she knows it when she sees it. That’s why I have a like/hate relationship with CATFISH, although now that it’s a tv show, it has given up the ghost. Here’s a good review of what it’s become:

  • Tom Roston

    But I realize I didn’t directly answer your question: my feeling is that it is 80% hybrid and 20% ruse. So, if you’re of the opinion that you can’t just half kill someone, then CATFISH is guilty as charged.

  • Tom Roston

    Interesting. I’d say 70% hybrid and 30% ruse but because it’s a film by an artist who builds his identity upon knowing/not knowing and conceptual art, it offends me much less than CATFISH. In EXIT, the posture is “i’m an artist so screw you if you can’t figure it out.” In CATFISH it’s “we’re just sweet guys trying to connect in this crazy social media age.” Who’d you rather be lied to by?