Tommy Flavin: Documentary making is an exercise in disappointment
I’ve had this weird experience over the last few documentaries I’ve made.
I’ve started out with a story that I was really passionate about- something exciting, unusual, full of life. Whenever I’ve pitched any of these films to people I’d catch myself saying, ‘the story’s all there, I just have to shoot what I see and it’ll be perfect!’ But once I begin shooting and editing the story, I’d realise that all the ideas that excited me weren’t really there. That the truth of the story was always more mundane than my initial ideas. Reality can be very boring. What I’ve learnt over the last year or two is that, more often than not, documentary making is an exercise in disappointment.
So how did I get around this problem? Well, I would embellish and suggest. So rather than answering the questions I set out to tackle in the beginning, I would leave those questions in the film and let the audience suggest an answer of their own accord. But is this OK? I mean, documentaries are supposed to be factual, right?
I ran into this problem recently while making a documentary on the Faroe Islands about a young boy racer. Over the course of several interviews, we found out all about him- his job, his hopes, his dreams, his worries. He was a lively guy, full of fun and enthusiasm for the world with a generally sunny disposition. He wanted to join the army. He loved the Faroe Islands, but was frustrated by the day-to-day realities of living in such a small community.
However, the film that resulted displayed none of these traits. The boy racer that you see on screen is a quiet, unhappy guy, defined by his frustration with life on the Faroe Islands, confused by what he can do to make himself happy. I’m terrified of showing this film to him, because I know he won’t recognise himself in it. In fact, to return to my first post, the character probably relates more to me than to him.
So am I being unethical? Yes and no. The reason, firstly, that we see such a skewed interpretation of this guy is because, quite frankly, a lot of the details of his life that make him who he is are boring. Why would an audience member care about some random teenager wanting to join the army? That’s not a story. Yet, to not represent these things would be to lie to the audience, to make a bad documentary.
Early on then, I decided that this film was not a portrait of this particular Faroese boy racer, but rather of Faroese youth in general. As such, this guy became a symbol, rather than a person. So while the film might not be true to this one guy, it is undoubtedly ‘true’ to the general experience of a Faroese teenager, or indeed, any bored teenager anywhere in the world. Not a perfect approach by any means, but probably the best of a bad lot.
And the proof is in the pudding- the reactions to this film so far have been very interesting. Most people enjoy it, say it’s nice (the worst compliment you can ever give a film!) and leave it at that. But any Faroese person who has seen it has had a markedly different reaction. They go very quiet. One or two cry a little bit. They don’t say it’s nice.
So here maybe we can see the difference between facts and truth. Factually, this film is probably the worst and least accurate biography ever made. But if you’re talking about universal truths, well then it’s clear that this film strikes a chord. As documentary makers, it’s important that we remember this difference between facts and truth.
Of course, all of my discourse here is really just bargain-bin Werner Herzog musings. He’s written much more insightfully and comprehensively about this than I ever could. Marvellously, he describes slavish indebtedness to facts and accuracy as being “the truth of accountants.”
“Facts do not convey truth. That’s a mistake. Facts create norms, but truth creates illumination.”
“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”
A still from my documentary shot on the Faroe Islands, Driving To Thule.