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Subjectively Factual: A conversation with Benny Safdie about the documentary-fiction divide

Tope Ogundare

"You always have to lie to tell the truth," says New York filmmaker Benny Safdie. It's a maxim that informs many of Benny and his brother Josh's films, most of which are showing at MIFF this year as part of a retrospective of their work.

“I don’t like the distinction between documentaries and fiction films,” he says. “It diminishes what some [documentaries] have the ability to do. Some you’re just watching for information. But then you see Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2012) and it’s a completely cinematic experience. It’s this beautiful use of archive footage. There’s manipulation going on, but at the same time, it’s telling you a story. That’s what a movie is.”

Safdie considers the brothers’ latest picture Heaven Knows What to be the “ultimate hybrid film”. It features lead actress Arielle Holmes playing Harley, a fictionalised version of her past – or not so past – self. The screenplay was adapted from Holmes’s soon-to-be-published memoirs, and chronicles her lovelorn, homeless, heroin-shooting day on the streets of New York. Safdie recalls a line from Holmes’s original manuscript in which she recounts a confrontation with her on-off lover: “Ilya came over, took my phone, saw it was Mike [a friend/suitor/fellow junkie] and broke it into a million pieces.” A million pieces: factually improbable but as true an expression of Holmes’s broken heart as she could have penned. After several uninspired attempts at accurately staging this moment, co-writer and co-editor Ronald Bronstein suggested that “the cell-phone… explode into a firework”.

Safdie lovingly teases the final result for being “unrealistic and so ridiculous”, but the moment is unquestionably potent. In one brilliant burst of colour it captures the couple’s opioid high, Arielle’s utter infatuation and Ilya’s blinding rage. “Things are constructed and changed to get at the overall truth,” says Benny. “[Werner] Herzog called it the ‘ecstatic truth’,” he elaborates, referring to the maverick German filmmaker whose documentary Grizzly Man was voted the twelfth greatest documentary of all time in a 2014 poll by leading film publication Sight and Sound.

Sadly, the Safdies’ search for ecstatic truth in their debut documentary Lenny Cooke (MIFF, 2015) raised the ire of what Benny terms the “documentary mafia”. The film examines the tragic narrative of Lenny Cooke, who went from being the top-ranked US high school basketballer (in LeBron James’s cohort) to being a deeply sympathetic could-have-been. Safdie recalls employing a lot of manipulation during the editing process, and the movie ends with an arresting SFX scene in which an older Lenny Cooke counsels his younger self: a time-travel soliloquy and a cautionary pep-talk. “These are things that you just don’t do in a documentary,” he says. Powerful as the film and its closing moments are, Lenny Cooke “didn’t get any respect as a documentary”.

Documentaries are traditionally viewed as an objective dissemination of fact, many of them running on plodding narration, repetitious montages and colour-drained re-enactments, all fashioned in a way that seems to equate blandness with neutrality. “In defence of the people making these films, they have to abide by certain rules and they kind of have to bend the lines a little bit but not too far so their work is not completely disregarded by [the documentary] community,” says Safdie. These rules are often put in use to ensure that subjects are handled responsibly and ethically. By the same token, is it ethical for any filmmaker to claim objectivity in their portrayal of fact? From lens selection to the sequencing of footage to the choice of musical accompaniment, reality never finds its way onto the screen unfiltered.

“Some of the best documentaries by Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, or even DA Pennebaker… [involve] a lot of work to make them seem effortless,” Safdie stresses. “But when you make a documentary that transcends recording, it just becomes a movie, and a movie is a movie… is a movie.”

Safdie is not alone in this view.

Dziga Vertov’s classic Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is a frenzy of images, a celebrated compendium of cinematic techniques and an unabashed filmic construct as much as it is a humanist portrait of four pulsating Soviet cities. Yet, after decades sitting atop the canonical pantheon (which consists largely of fiction films), this expressionistic ode to progress was voted – by over 340 prominent filmmakers, critics and film thinkers – ‘the greatest documentary of all time’ in the aforementioned 2014 Sight and Sound poll. In doing so, Man with a Movie Camera beat out 49 other acclaimed docos.

Even more curious is the realisation that many of the films on the Sight and Sound list deviate from the traditional definition of ‘documentary’, which asserts itself as a factual report on a particular subject, according to the Merriam-Webster/Oxford views.

Consider two canonical documentary works: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982), which is essentially an essay film, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up (1990), which has strong similarities to Heaven Knows What. Documentaries that stand out tend to be the work of filmmakers who acknowledge the inescapably subjective nature of their chosen medium.

“There’s this ability to appreciate that these [films] are great and these people took those risks… but there is this fear…” Safdie muses. It’s a fear that doesn’t necessarily extend to all contemporary documentarians. Rather than exemplifying the idea that a movie exploring factual events and actual people should feign objectivity, “there are movies by Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) and Asif Kapadia (Senna) that completely throw out the formula”. Indeed, these filmmakers understand that a human presence can exist behind the objective apparatus of cinema when approaching the factual.

Even though Lenny Cooke is the product of artistic licence, when the Safdie brothers finally presented the finished cut to their subject, “Lenny sat down and watched the documentary and gave us the biggest hug and said, ‘That’s it. That’s it!’ He’d never seen something that expressed his feelings and his emotions like [the movie].”

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus features