Tommy Flavin- You Want The Truth? You Can’t Handle The Truth!

As I touched on in my last blog post, one of the things I’m most excited for with METAMORPHOSIS is the potential that arises from presenting a documentary film in the context of an art exhibition. A frustration I’ve been encountering more and more in my work is trying to find a balance between making a film that an audience finds satisfying and enjoyable, while still expressing what it is I want to say.

There’s a number of constraints that arise when considering an audience’s role in your work. An audience, understandably, want to watch a film that tells a clear story from beginning to end and that makes immediate sense to them. This is what you would call the Three-Act Structure, the idea that any film (or indeed, story) should be told in a clear, logical manner and presented in the form of a beginning, middle and end, with a clear, definite message to impart to an audience.

While this is all well and good within narrative filmmaking, when it comes to documentary this becomes something that is at best, frustrating, and at worst, quite dangerous and simplistic. Making a documentary is essentially the act of curating reality and presenting it to an audience. But as we all know, reality is messy, complicated and nothing really makes any sense or has a ‘meaning’. Furthermore, no story ever really begins or ends. Think of your own life- if somebody was to make a film about you, where would they start? At your birth? But what about before that? What about your parents and their lives? What about the history of the community in which you were raised? And where would you end it? With your death? But what about your legacy? What about the influence you had on those around you, those who came after? To draw a line demarking the beginning and ending of your story is to leave out key details and to give undue importance to others.

Even if we could do this, the next problem would be, what is your story? What is the one issue that would define your life? Maybe your job. But what about the things you’ve seen, the lives you’ve touched? Are we defined solely by any one thing in our lives?

So what, you might say. Who cares. The problem with this way of telling stories means that, not only do we leave out important things, but we also put undue influence on others. Suddenly, details in the film of your life mean something. Each event in your life has a direct bearing on what comes after and all events are presented in a causal, logical manner. But in reality, this isn’t quite true. Things often happen for no reason at all, or for reasons that are ineffable. So now, what we have is a story made up of things that might seem true, but actually aren’t.

This is what we call a meta-narrative and it’s strongly discouraged in contemporary documentary-making, because it’s essentially lying to an audience. The problem, of course, is that the audience want to be lied to. They don’t want to confront the messy nature of reality, or to be told that everything means nothing. They want to be entertained. If I were to make a documentary in that way, people would just think I’d made a bad film.

So I have a love/hate relationship with an audience. On the one hand, presenting your work to an audience is a joy and is the only reason we make films. But on the other hand, an audience are so conditioned as to what to expect- a meta-narrative- that I’m constantly having to limit and simplify what it is I’m trying to say and being forced into ‘lying’ to an audience.

The exhibition format of METAMORPHOSIS means I am given the freedom to break free of this narrative format. Because a viewer is approaching my work in an exhibition, rather than a cinema, they have vastly different expectations. Who expects a piece of art to have a beginning, middle and end? Who expects a piece of art to have a main character? Or to even make sense? So now that I can disregard these conventions, I’m freed to represent what I see in a ‘truer’ sense, knowing that I don’t have to fulfil that essential, but awful, task of documentary- to inform, educate and entertain– and instead focus on the only important requirement of art- to make somebody feel something; to interpret what it is to be human.

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