“I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?”

Eugene Smith

Dabbling in both fiction and doc, it’s fair to say that my thinking around both has gone all hybrid. After all, who ever said that techniques used in either of them have to remain mutually exclusive?

(Plenty of people, but that’s not important right now.)

We rearrange the order of events all the time, putting an incident earlier than it happened because it functions as a better trigger, or later than it happened because it generates catharsis. Maybe, in reality, an inciting incident triggered a character’s action, but maybe, putting an inciting incident AFTER a character’s action, reinforces the character’s decision to act as a righteous one.

We bury raw information in the middle of a piece, because maybe it calls back to something you saw earlier in the film, and seeing it again changes its meaning. For example on a film I edited on sexual abuse, a photograph of a victim with a friend was nice but banal at the beginning, then altogether more sinister later on after it’s revealed that the friend was the perpetrator. We could have put that earlier, or not shown the picture the first time, but then the realization, the shared outrage of betrayal is lost.

But those are examples or creative choices to heighten impact, not change the story; going “Tarantino” on what sequence events are shown in, repeating for deepening impact, or tuning memory to work the same way it does in every day life, the way you see a life event differently when you’re 30 than you did when you were 20, and so on.. Techniques in the edit suite frequently astonish me, and I still get a big goofy grin when unexpected surprises occur. It’s simply part of our craft.

Where it gets touchier though is when there’s a direct contradiction between what you want to say and what really happened. Put another way, if one misrepresents the principals or events in order to satisfy one’s own narrative desires, how far away are we from the territory of propaganda? If I claim that a character is, for example, continuing to build a dam, or speak out against injustice, or take care of their kids, when the opposite is the truth, then what is the point of that message? Am I just trying to give a happy ending? A sad one? Am I trying to make a person or a movement appear weaker or stronger than they actually are?

There’s a pretty neat article about Steve McCurry’s work that starts by examining allegations that his work is “touched up” and therefore “false”, goes through ideas about what truth and journalism and integrity are, and then goes a little deeper, by forgiving McCurry his technical trespasses, and instead targeting his cultural integrity; his tendency to exoticize other places and peoples, turning them into artifacts instead of men and women. I guess it’s the price he pays for fame. I guess he wipes his tears away with his awards.

Though I can think of plenty of artists guiltier than McCurry of those tactics, it’s an interesting argument : that he mis-represents India by making it seem totally old world: dudes in turbans, girls in saris, spices everywhere and pre-steampunk technology. He’s not saying that that’s the one and only picture of India, but he is perpetuating a particular idea, or an outdated “truth.” Is that in fact a falsehood? A dangerous stereotype?

draft-23d68cac-5b44-4f63-bb67-013b24d78615Personally I’m way less interested in the beauty of a perfect image of a “native” with deep eye lines and hands worn from manual labor, than in an image that surprises. Same as in a film I feel far less need to see the good guys win, than a genuine arc that transforms a character, or those around them, for better or worse. It’s a document, one that allows us to reflect on our behavior and decisions, and to maybe make better decisions in the future.

Speaking of decisions, I started this piece with the bit about McCurry. Then started scrawling about some of the things editors do, then stepped back to consider how that fit with the McCurry bit. Was I trying to change the narrative? I think I was just trying to put all the data into a context that (hopefully) makes more sense to people besides myself. Combinations and connections that edge us closer towards a deeper understanding.

For everyone else there’s Trump.


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