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Does It Matter if a Documentary Is Staged? These Two Films Hold Answers

Gateway Movies offers ways to begin exploring directors, genres and topics in film by examining a few streaming movies.

Last month, I found myself a dissenting voice on one of the summer’s most acclaimed films, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.” At first glance, the movie appears to be a documentary about the final day of a Las Vegas-area dive bar called Roaring ’20s. But the directors, the brothers Bill and Turner Ross, never reveal that this setup was contrived. Although the bar’s patrons are real people, hanging out without a script, they were in effect cast by the directors, with the expectation (implicit or explicit) that they would behave as they would in that real situation. The actual Roaring ’20s bar, which wasn’t closing, was near New Orleans.

To the movie’s fans, the deception is forgivable. “Reviews hung up on documentary veracity are missing the point,” tweeted my friend Scott Tobias, who also contributes to The New York Times, adding, “Authenticity and artifice coexist all the time in movies, and this film proves something special can come out of deliberately mingling the two.”

I don’t disagree. In a sense, nearly all films balance competing factors: the camera’s lens, which carries at least the promise of capturing unmitigated reality; the situations, real or manufactured, that take place while that camera is rolling; the decidedly nonobjective people controlling what is shot; and additional manipulations — of editing, effects and music — that occur after shooting.

Critics tend to hand-wave deceptions when they like the results and to count them against a film if they don’t. (I plead guilty.) Debates about the virtues of fakery have raged as long as cinema has existed, and it’s worth taking a look at two ostensibly nonfiction films to understand the issues at play.

“Man of Aran”: Stream it on the Criterion Channel; rent or buy it on Amazon.

“F for Fake”: Stream it on the Criterion Channel, HBO Max and Kanopy; rent or buy it on Amazon and iTunes.

Robert J. Flaherty remains best known for “Nanook of the North” (1922), a pioneering work both of cinematic ethnography and of suspect nonfiction filmmaking — an ostensible introduction to the lives of Indigenous inhabitants of Northern Canada for which Flaherty’s Inuit collaborators helped stage scenes.

Flaherty’s later “Man of Aran” (1934), a portrait of life on the Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast, is worthy of similar skepticism. Still, its goals are more poetic than expository: Real or staged, “Man of Aran” is simply one of the medium’s most dazzling pictorial experiences, and confronted with the extraordinary contrast of its black-and-white photography — as waves pound the rocky coast in the violent weather of the finale — it is simply difficult to care about how the film was planned. Those are real people in a real boat, about to be swallowed by cresting waters or crashed against the cliffs.

Besides, at least compared with “Nanook,” “Man of Aran” is upfront about its liberties. It opens with a cast list (“a man of Aran,” “his wife,” “their son”) — an implicit acknowledgment that this purported chronicle of a family living away from modern comforts is, strictly speaking, a portrait of people playing a family. Documentaries would have to wait for a later era for equipment that could truly capture sound on the fly, and the Flaherty biographer Paul Rotha notes that the “snatches of speech and the general sound effects” in “Man of Aran” were supplemental, created at Gainsborough Studios in England. The dialogue — incidental brogue-heavy back-and-forths — isn’t really meant to be understood, and close scrutiny of the images will reveal that the words aren’t synchronized with lips. Even the gentle noise of lapping waves is a sort of illusion.

A frequent point of contention with the film is that Flaherty depicts the hunting of basking sharks — an activity that Graham Greene, among others, wrote that the subjects had to be taught. Here, though, is another case where close attention to Flaherty’s editing reveals his sleights of hand. To amplify the suspense of a hunting sequence, he presents rapid-fire cuts of unspooling rope, creating what is probably an artificial sense of speed.

But does it help if, unlike in “Man of Aran” (or “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”), a film ultimately levels with you and pulls back the curtain on its methods? A natural test case would be Orson Welles’s “F for Fake” (first shown in 1973). To avoid spoilers, you might want to watch it before reading further.

A deathtrap of an essay film in which you can never truly trust what you see, “F for Fake” dispenses information in a disorienting flurry. On the surface, the movie’s main subjects are originality in art, the fallibility of experts and the pointlessness of assessing authorship, at least when confronted with a masterpiece. (As many have noted of the film, it may have been Welles’s oblique response to Pauline Kael, who in 1971 challenged his contributions to “Citizen Kane,” offering Herman J. Mankiewicz, the other screenwriter on the film with Welles, as its true auteur.)

Other than Welles, the two principal figures in “F for Fake,” fittingly, are professional charlatans. One is Elmyr de Hory, regarded as one of the most convincing art forgers ever. The other is Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer and a fabulist in his own right: He gained international infamy for publishing a book on Howard Hughes based on encounters that never happened.

“F for Fake” opens with Welles performing magic tricks — a more or less open acknowledgment that he plans to make the audience his mark. This is a “film about trickery,” he explains, and even confronts viewers with their own potential to be misdirected in a sequence that shows the actress Oja Kodar, his partner in later years, turning heads as she walks the city streets. Welles can make you look this way and that way, too — even if you should be looking elsewhere.

By the end, Welles will have revealed at least one major deception. But some of his tricks remain hidden even then: As James Naremore notes in his book “The Magic World of Orson Welles,” much of “F for Fake” actually recycles a movie by another filmmaker, Fran├žois Reichenbach, who had made a documentary on de Hory that Welles bought and reshaped for his own purposes. Who’s the author now?

But Welles’s ultimate subject is the seductive power of truth. Without ever fully obscuring his methods (as Naremore points out, he is frequently shown in the editing room), Welles demonstrates that once viewers start to accept what they see at face value, it becomes possible to persuade them of much more.

That is the disturbing implication of all the best docufictions: They become so special that truth no longer matters.

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