You Can’t Handle the Truth: Depicting Fact as Fiction at TIFF 2016
When it comes to the depiction of real life events in film, what can we really consider to be truth, and what must we chalk up to the creative liberty of the filmmakers? This question is examined in depth in director Lone Scherfig’s TIFF 2016 release Their Finest, a wonderful period piece following a group of British filmmakers who attempt to create an inspirational flick during the Blitz of London in World War II.
When idealistic writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) questions her team members’ willingness to alter the facts of the true event they are bringing to life on the screen, she is told that films create their own truths. What actually happened does not really matter; it is the end result that is important—how the audience is made to feel and react. While watching this film, I was as struck with this issue as was Catrin, especially in relation to several other films that I was able to view during this year’s Festival.
Documentary film can be an excellent vehicle through which to tell a real life story. These films can entertain as well as inform, and be quite creative and artistic in their own rights. When given the choice between a documentary film and a narrative film about a true story, however, I am apt to opt for the latter. Both forms of film bring their own curated tones and the biases of those involved to their stories, but I feel that both are capable of depicting versions of the “truth,” albeit in different ways. Biopics—films that present a dramatic rendering of a real life person, whether it is an overarching look at their entire life or a brief snapshot of a single event—are fascinating to the current public, as we desire to peer into the lives of others, from the high profile and notorious to the inspirational underdogs.
Oliver Stone’s greatly anticipated Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the infamous National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. While many are aware of the topical events wherein Snowden leaked highly classified information that exposed the depths of the NSA’s surveillance program, the figure himself was somewhat of an enigma until recently. Director Stone attempts here to reveal the mystery behind the man, depicting him in an unfailingly sympathetic light and showing what we are to believe are his motivations and incentives.
One of the greatest challenges Stone faced when creating his biopic was satisfying his desire for his real-life eponym to appear in the film. Edward Snowden actually worked closely with the filmmakers, meeting with them nine times to ensure that his story was told the way in which he wanted it to be. According to Stone, the filmmakers would write their version of a scene, and then Snowden would help them get it right. With this knowledge, one begins to question how much of the story is told through the lens of Snowden’s biased perspective, how much is Stone’s creative dramatization, and how much is fact or “truth” as it actually played out.
I enjoy dramatic representations of real life events due to the new viewpoints and depth that narrative film can add to a story. I am not convinced that Stone’s handling of Snowden brought anything new to the table, however, that was not covered by the recent Oscar-winning documentary on the same subject, Citizenfour. What we have here is an undeniably well made but rather standard biopic that tells a story we have already seen before, and does not do so in a particularly unique or original way.
Another film based on fact that I viewed during TIFF 2016 was Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, which tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga in her first film appearance), a young girl from Uganda who overcame the obstacles of extreme poverty to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion. The story goes beyond that of Mutesi alone, offering a glimpse into the life of her teacher Robert (David Oyelowo) as well. This missionary turned soccer player turned chess coach sees the potential in the game to teach his students life lessons along with strategy. Even more notable is the confidence that he is able to inspire in these children, showing them that they have the ability to go head-to-head against the wealthy city children even though they don’t have fancy possessions or entitled attitudes.
Whereas I believe that a narrative film version of Snowden may have been unnecessary due to the documentary that came before—unless something new had been presented from a film standpoint, which it was not—the story of Phiona and Robert translates perfectly onto the screen. Without a film such as this one, it is likely that her story would never have been told; essentially, she required a movie to give her a voice and bring her inspirational tale to the general public. While I anticipated a harder edge to Oliver Stone’s Snowden, I went in to Queen of Katwe expecting a mild and watered-down version of the tale from Disney. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the film did not shy away from addressing issues such as prostitution and the threat of violence in the village in a very real and straightforward manner. It is impossible to determine exactly how much of this film is true to life and how much is Disney magic and creative liberty, but the willingness to discuss the darker aspects of the tale gestures to a devotion to the truth.
Queen of Katwe closes with a classic biopic technique: the real life individual and the actor who portrayed them appear on screen together as a brief epilogue is displayed. The average viewer is probably unaware of this lesser-known story, so finding out “what happens next” is fascinating. The two individuals on screen together are often seen hugging and laughing; it may be forced, but appeared real and natural to this viewer. Contrast this strategy with that employed by Snowden, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s image morphs into that of Edward Snowden himself. In the former film, the narrative concludes, and the actor and individual are brought together in a non-fiction appendix to the movie. In the latter, Snowden appears in the film himself—albeit for a few moments at the very conclusion. He is the character that is portrayed; he was intimately involved in crafting his own representation, and it is apparent.
There’s a fine line between fact and fabrication that narrative films depicting true life events must walk. Where exactly this line is drawn is up to the filmmakers, who decide how much bias they will allow, and how much truth they may be willing to sacrifice in order to tell a good story and craft an effective movie. As Oliver Stone himself said, “Sometimes real life is just not as exciting as a film.” Their Finest emphasized the idea that literal truth may not be the most important factor in narrative film, even regarding a biopic or tale that is “Based on a True Story.” Snowden and Queen of Katwe both relayed their own versions of truth, using very different approaches with varying degrees of effectiveness. Overall, film is meant to elicit a reaction and response. If we as an audience are willing to accept that, we can abandon ourselves to whatever version of the story is put forth, and allow it to become our truth—for a few hours, at least.
Images: Courtesy of TIFF and each films respective distribution/production companies.