A question was posed on the Filmspotting Forum recently about movies that claim some level of truth. What if they don't give all the truth? What if they change significant aspects of the story, or the history?
My friend Jessica/Lobby gave this example: In the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a journalist and editor who lost complete use of his body. The film shows how his ex-wife stayed with him through thick and thin, but his girlfriend didn't show up. However, eyewitnesses say that the truth is just the opposite-- it was the girlfriend who was by his side and the ex-wife who wasn't to be seen. Why the change? The ex-wife was co-producer of the film.
Should the director or scriptwriter take some responsibility that the facts be presented correctly? What about a portrayal that puts a real person-- perhaps a living person-- in a bad (or good) light that isn't accurate? Should there be some baseline of truth that is required should a film claim to be based on "real events"?
In my opinion, all film is fiction. So is almost all literature, except for the most researched, documented material. In every film there is a kind of truth that they are trying to reach for and a kind of fiction that supports their version of the truth. If a film states "based on real events", this only means to me that something vaguely like what occurred in the film happened. If the real events were important to me, I'd read a journalistic, documented report of such events.
Documentaries, while using actual footage, is at best interpreted fact. At worst, it is created from whole cloth. This does not hinder my enjoyment of said film because I believe that all film is fiction.
Since Orson Welles' tour de force F is for Fake, many documentaries have abandoned all pretense of being journalistic or objective. This last year we have the film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which narratively, purposefully, blurs the line between reality and fiction. Michael Moore has facts he believes are true and presents them in an entertaining fashion, but it's only one side of the facts. Recent documentaries such as My Kid Could Paint That and Dear Zachary allow the filmmaker to insert himself into the narrative, throwing objectivity out the window. 24 City, a Chinese documentary, uses actors to re-create interviews. The line between truth and storytelling and just plain old fiction is often blurred without distinction. Mind you, I love these films. And part of what I love is the question of truth the filmmaker puts in your mind.
I wish that the term "documentary" didn't mean, in many people's estimation, a factual account. I wish that when anyone reads the phrase "based on real events" that they would emphasize the word "based", and recognize that there is a lot in the film that isn't fact in any way. But people want to think that reality happens in this entertaining fashion. So it is.
What is a director's responsibility? Not much more than what they have done already. I wish that every documentarian would say, "This film is more about me than my subject". I wish that every filmmaker who creates a movie about real events would admit that they made up a lot or at least changed a lot. But that's kind of like asking a magician to tell how they did their trick (as The Prestige would say). Frankly, it ruins the trick for the audience. It's like a child saying, "Let's pretend" in a Let's Pretend game. To acknowledge the curtain is to acknowledge that you are being tricked and that ruins the real fiction: the one where the audience thinks they are being given facts instead of opinion.
So what about the girl that was falsely portrayed in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?
I would hope that she and her friends would know the truth. The fact is, if the wife hadn't been a co-producer, the film possibly wouldn't have been made at all, and most of us wouldn't have known the amazing story, or seen the remarkable film. I would wish that most people would understand that such a movie is a story and only part of the narrative is true. Some won't. But those of us that do will be talking about the "wife" and the "girlfriend" as portrayed in the movie, not in real life.
As for anyone who purposefully tells a lie in order to promote themselves... I have no sympathy for them and believe that justice will be given them-- but almost certainly not in film. Nor in the courts.