Truth on film

Friday, July 26, 2013
Lyn-Maree Milburn

I think neither the factual or fictional form of cinema can really claim to be more invested in the telling of truth than the other. Often filmmakers in both camps aspire in one way or another to do just that: tell the truth. For some filmmakers it is the point of filmmaking.

Filmmaking has put itself through rigorous theoretical and conceptual experimentation since the earliest efforts of the masters in all of cinemas various guises, as they sought to define the form. At its best both factual and fictional cinema reflects the common ingredients required to successfully deliver “truth” (if indeed that is the aim).

From Eisenstein’s violent approach to editing, using montage as a tool to jar his viewer, to Pudovkin who believed that a film is not shot but built, that the construction and placement of shots give it its meaning, filmmakers have wrestled with how cinema could communicate the truth on one hand and create illusion on the other.

Even the realist schools in drama, and the hand-held fly on the wall documentarians, must use montage, place their camera and frame their subject, and in doing so make false their claim to the truth they pursue. Perhaps Andy Warhol, in his films such as 'Sleep, Empire and My Hustler' came closest to capturing “truth”, if that is what can be called truth. Yet the banality of that truth proves very hard to watch.

The kind of truth I like in a film and to explore myself is emotional truth. Even though the documentary form deals with real people and real lives, I prefer to approach their stories as I would a narrative. While that sounds like it could be open to falsifying, the story or character is strangely able to dictate its own terms to you, the director and editor. There is a life within the footage of the film you have shot and the film will be built according to that inherent blue print, like it or not.

I have worked on projects where I have thought a certain way about the main character or subject of the film and had preconceptions about the kind of film I wanted to make, only to find that the truth of the subject had other plans. They always win; the film will be what it needs to be. I have never felt that a set of facts delivers the whole truth, rather that the facts may instead underscore truth or an argument. I think the depiction of truth is understood through the experience of the emotional truth of the subject and characters of the story. One of the tasks of all those practicing the use of the imagination is to bring us closer to the truth through the experience of the other, the subject of the film, and help us to experience life in their shoes and under their skin.

With 'In Bob We Trust', it was a difficult task. Father Bob is a kind of icon and people are invested in him. But the film we have made looks behind that, beyond the icon. Father Bob is a real and charismatic person, but he was also very much always “on”, able to talk about almost anything, and his positivity amidst the dour Scottish-ness meant that he always appeared buoyant. We had to be patient for the times when life impacted in a way that his valiant façade became difficult for him to uphold. These more raw moments became the gems of the film and the juxtaposition with the more lively and erudite moments I think give the film its truth. Working with a real person such as Father Bob so closely and over such a long period of time is certainly one of the joys of working on a documentary, or non-fiction film. The surprises of character and the events of real life carving out a story in front of the cameras is sometimes quite extraordinary.

Dealing with real people and subjects is a little like being an archaeologist and excavating delicately among the rushes, months, and sometimes years, later for gems of truths, sometimes not realising you have one until it finds its rightful place in the cut as if threading your findings like daisies on a chain and ordering them in some kind of emotional sense.

One must wrestle with an array of different kinds of truth in order to illustrate a story. There are factual truths, emotional, psychological, individual and universal truths. There is truth that can be delivered by a set of numbers, dates and facts, and truths that require us to be open to understanding and experiencing another’s truth – the truth of who they are, their story, their existence, the circumstances of the life from which they act and live. It is the delicate combination of narrative dramatic sensibilities tempered by restraint and patience that helps deliver an authentic yet moving truth in the documentary form.

About Lyn-Maree Milburn

Lyn-Maree Milburn is a film producer, film director and television director. Her production company, Ghost, is behind some of Australia’s most iconic films including 'Dogs in Space', 'Memories and Dreams', 'He Died With a Felafel In His Hand' and last year’s theatrical and festival hit 'Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard'. Her latest film, 'In Bob We Trust', premiered at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival