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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007
The camera and the truth
Special to The Japan Times
With his fake documentary purporting to show serving President George W. Bush's assassination, director Gabriel Range has made this year's most controversial movie
What is real? There was a time when a photograph or a reel of film was a record of an event. Fiction was obviously staged, whereas newscasts or documentaries had the pretense of representing something true. Orson Welles most famously exposed the fallacy of that proposition with his 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," in which his fake news bulletins announcing a Martian invasion triggered public panic.
Film caught on later to such chicanery; perhaps the first one to really employ this style was 1966's "The War Game," a faux-doc by director Peter Watkins set in England after a nuclear attack, done in a contemporary newsreel style and commissioned — then shelved — by a paranoid BBC. The faux-doc style was further revolutionized by a pair of mid-'80s films, Woody Allen's "Zelig," in which Allen's film splices his character into old 1930s footage, and Rob Reiner's "mockumentary" of a hair-metal band, "This Is Spinal Tap."
These days, the quasidocumentary style shows no signs of letting up, from brilliant comedies like "Borat" or "Drop Dead Gorgeous," to intense dramas like "United 97" or "Touching The Void."
"Death of a President," British director Gabriel Range's fictional faux-doc on the assassination of U.S. President George W. Bush, which opens in Japan this weekend, is only the latest entry in a growing subgenre of movies that have appropriated documentary filmmaking techniques for fictional storytelling.
All this is enough to make one wonder: Is the documentary dead? If the recorded image is so easily manipulated, and if the vocabulary of documentary filmmaking, which once signified a restrained objectivity — the proverbial "fly-on-the-wall" — is reduced to an effect, where does this leave the genre?
"Death of a President" passes itself off as a documentary made several years after the killing of Bush, exploring the mood in the country when it happened, the protests in Chicago leading up to the assassination, on Oct. 19, 2007, and the bungled search for suspects, in which, as usual, someone gets railroaded. Most terrifying of all, we get glimpses of a Dick Cheney administration fishing about for yet another war.
Range's film feels eerily like the real thing. Archival and news footage is cleverly manipulated to become part of the story. We see Cheney give a moving eulogy at his boss' funeral, a scene lifted from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's funeral in Washington. Protesters march down the streets of Chicago in scenes that couldn't have been staged — but then we see cops dragging away one protester who later becomes a suspect in the killing.
So how much manipulation was involved in the making of "Death of a President"? Was the footage found and then the script molded to it, or vice versa?
"A bit of both, actually," says Range in an interview with The Japan Times. "I'd made a couple of films previously in a similar style with producer Simon Finch ("The Day Britain Stopped," "Supersleuths: The Menendez Brothers"), who worked with me on the film. We both looked through hundreds of hours of archive (footage). There were a few things we found that we knew were gonna make it into the film. Like Cheney's eulogy — we couldn't have scripted it better! But the research process carried right on through to the filming.
"For the protests, it was a mixture of things, (footage) from a big demonstration in Chicago in 2003, in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. We also filmed actors during a real demonstration to concur with the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. While we were there, we approached some protesters and convinced them to help with the film. So that really helps blur those boundaries between what was staged and what was real."
Range is rather up-front about the ability to manipulate the "truth."
"That was a big part of the desire to make this film," he insists, "to show how devastatingly easy it is to do that. One of the striking things about making the film is how little of what we've achieved is through special effects. Most of it is about changing the context of a piece of archive (footage), making some very subtle changes or recutting a sequence to change the meaning of it. One of the interesting things was realizing the power of simple editing in the way any story is perceived.
"So I think it is disturbing, but we as viewers need to be aware of it. There's a degree to which, when we read a newspaper article, we are kind of conscious that we are reading the journalist's interpretation of an event, but we sometimes forget that when we watch television or see a documentary in the cinema — because part of us thinks the camera can't lie. But actually, editing has a terrific power in the way we understand any story."
One wonders if former presidential adviser Karl Rove would ever have admitted to this, given the Bush administration's primary concern has been editing the story — the Iraq war, minus the glimpse of any returning body bags, for one example.
As Range sees it, harnessing a documentary's look and feel to a fiction film is all about "a means to make us engage with it in a different way. You suspend your disbelief differently."
But won't this devalue actual documentaries? "Fiction is borrowing increasingly from the world of documentary and documentary from the world of fiction," says the director. "But I don't think one erodes the other. There is a power in telling a story as lifelike and realistically as possible."
Of course the scene that draws one's attention to this most directly is the one where the president, shaking hands with Republican party supporters outside a hotel, is shot by a sniper from a nearby building. The scene is only an instant, but that's clearly Bush's face on the person being shot.
"What we did was create a 3-D mask of Bush's face and tracked that onto the actor, using special effects," Range explains of the shot. It's Bush's face. But we didn't want to dwell on it too much, because we didn't want to be seen to be reveling in the shooting."
Range credits his editor, who managed to take archive footage of Bush speaking and shaking hands at an event at Atlanta Tech and then splice it with actors and newly created scenes. "I storyboarded the scene around it (the archive footage) and figured out what other angles we'd need to shoot to complement it." This process involved casting extras who resembled the people in the original footage, clothing them similarly, and achieving similar lighting.
The filmmakers mix the two seamlessly and the flow between the "real" and the "artificial" is mind-boggling. Take the Secret Service agent standing behind Bush when he's shot; this is actually a digital composite of the agent who was in the archive footage with Bush. But, laments Range, "one of the slightly frustrating things is, because your eye is always drawn to Bush, a lot of the time you don't even notice we've bothered to do that!"
But notice it you should: if Bush can be standing next to someone who wasn't really there, if the technology is such, why do we all so readily believe the regular release of videotapes of Osama Bin Laden?
The assassination shot itself is redolent of so many images in American history: Bobby Kennedy being shot by Sirhan Sirhan in a crowded hotel kitchen; Lee Harvey Oswald being gunned down by Jack Ruby outside a courtroom; or Reagan being fired on by John Hinckley as he worked a crowd.
Range studied those images to create his own, saying, "Those scenes were definitely influenced by the Reagan shooting. When we watch that today — the unedited footage — one of the extraordinary things about it is that right after the gunshots, it's just bedlam! Complete chaos. And there's a very particular emotion that comes with it, a horror, some sort of incredible power. So we wanted to echo that."
Predictably, "Death of a President" has touched off a virtual firestorm in the American media, becoming one of the most controversial movies of the year. CNN and NPR refused to run ads for the film, while several cinema chains said they wouldn't screen it. Talk radio went berserk, with conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh barely pausing to wipe the froth from their mouths, damning the film as a radical-left, Bush-hater fantasy.
Even "moderate" Democrats piled it on, with party-supporter Kevin Costner — who starred in assassination film, "JFK" — moaning about how the Bush family might feel and Hillary Clinton proclaiming "that anyone would even attempt to profit from such a horrible scenario makes me sick." (One wonders if that sentiment extends to Haliburton and other kick-back besotted contractors sucking green from the Iraq quagmire?) In Japan, the original title, "Bush Ansatsu Jiken (The Assassination of Bush)," was banned by film censors and retitled, with Bush's name left out.
But "Death of a President" is nothing like what its critics make it out to be. Yes, it deals with the shooting of America's current president, but no, it doesn't dance on Bush's grave. Rather, it uses this premise to examine the current, post-9/11 mood in America, an atmosphere in which fearmongering, suspect motives and virulent political enmity have spread like a cancer, and where image manipulation has trumped dealing with reality in politics.
How could the film be characterized so mistakenly? "I think that people jumped to a lot of wrong conclusions," says the director. "As soon as we announced that I'd made this film, there was this assumption that we'd be somehow encouraging someone to go out and kill him. We knew that it would upset some people, and we knew that showing the assassination of a sitting president was provocative. But we didn't expect the way in which people were prepared to condemn the film without having seen it."
Would a fictional president have not sufficed? Barry Levinson's "Wag The Dog," for one, got its message across without ever whispering the words "Clinton" or "Monica." Range disagrees, noting how "barely a season of 'The West Wing' or '24' goes by without an attempt on the president's life. But that is fiction, and we don't think about it the same way. What we wanted to do was make a film which was very much grounded in reality, that was about the America of today and the world created by 9/11 and the Bush administration's responses to that. So it felt right that it was Bush. If it was President Jones or whoever, I think the impact would have been much less."
Grange goes on to say that if they'd made a film about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair getting whacked, there would be nowhere near the level of outrage. Maybe, but perhaps Americans are more traumatized by the fact that assassinations have been much more frequent in public life in the U.S.
The troubling thing about this film is that the scenario it presents is all too probable. Some critics have said about it that the film itself will act as an incitement for someone to go out and take a shot at Bush. In reality, going to war under false pretenses and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina are bigger motivators than any film could be. One need only look at the precedents of JFK — most likely shot, whether by Oswald or not, for his Cuban policies — or the figure of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, back from the Gulf War with vengeance on his mind, to see that inflammatory policy often does indeed come with blowback.
Range says that the most crucial thing was to show an assassin who had a reason to do it, "a suspect who was not insane," says the director. "I think a defining characteristic of the Bush administration has been a desire to simplify, to define everything in terms of absolutes. You know, black and white, good and evil, with us or against us. But it's something the broadcast media — especially Fox — are also party to, in the sense that there's a desire to reduce any situation, any conflict, into a preordained narrative which is very simple. But the world's bloody complicated, and that simplification can cause grave misunderstandings and terrible consequences, as we now see in Iraq."
"Death of a President" opens nationwide on Oct. 6
Assassinations on film: three that bit the bullet before
"State of Siege"
This 1972 French-language film by director/writer Costa-Gavras, based on a true story, controversially portrayed the kidnapping and eventual execution of an American working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Costa-Gavras shrewdly plays on our assumptions, making us feel sympathy for the American aid worker who is threatened by Uruguay's Tupamaros guerrillas, before delivering the kicker — that the man is actually a covert operative, training the country's police in torture techniques.
A tense thriller that uncomfortably reveals how America's love affair with torture far predates Abu Ghraib and "24," "Stage of Siege" is a film that is hard to imagine being made nowadays, except maybe in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.
The Zapruder film
Father to 1,000 conspiracy theories, this accidental documentary occurred on a November day in Dallas, Texas in 1963, when Abraham Zapruder was filming his clothing-company employees as they waited to catch a glimpse of U.S. President John F. Kennedy passing in a motorcade. Zapruder managed to capture the exact instant the president was shot, and the resulting 26 seconds of film may be the most viewed and analyzed in the history of cinema. (Most famously, the implications of the president's head moving back at the time of the second shot, supposedly from behind him; see Oliver Stone's "JFK.")
Important as it was as a piece of evidence, the Zapruder film was even more noteworthy as a harbinger of a new era: mass-market, hand-held Super-8 cameras meant the power to incontrovertibly record events had hit the streets. Ironically, "Death of a President" shows that the camera's power to represent the truth is waning.
"The Day of the Jackal"
Like "Death of a President," this 1973 film posited a political assassination that could have happened, but didn't. Unlike "Death of a President," far less controversy met "Jackal," presumably because the assassin was unsuccessful, and because his target's political career was comfortably past tense. (And probably because he wasn't American.)
The film featured an absolutely cool and controlled performance by Edward Fox as an assassin-for-hire. European settlers in Algeria, enraged by what they perceive as a sellout when the French government granted independence to its colony, pay the Jackal to take out President Charles de Gaulle. Filmed mostly on locations in Europe, it has a realistic, almost documentary quality not a million miles away from "Death of a President."