TORONTO — Canadian documentary makers say fresh details of how a key moment was altered in HBO’s true-crime series “The Jinx” raise questions about the ethics of creators who tread a razor-thin line between fact and fiction.
As the Hot Docs film festival moved ahead in Toronto this week, debates were sparked over whether reality stands in the way of good storytelling — and if producers sometimes ignore their moral responsibility in favour of sensationalism.
Martha Kehoe, who co-directed “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” suggests the portrayal of truth in documentary is blurrier than it’s been in recent memory.
“There used to be a very strong concept of journalistic ethics, and I think documentary makers felt that. Now, all bets are off,” she argued.
“There’s no ethics being practised in politics and it’s a trickle down effect.”
Many filmmakers say it’s hard to ignore the incredible popularity of “The Jinx,” which captivated audiences and grabbed headlines when it debuted in 2015. The series painted New York real estate heir Robert Durst as an unconvicted murderer — but it turns out the most damning moment of the docuseries didn’t happen the way it was presented.
A recent New York Times report revealed the bathroom confession where Durst seemingly muttered to himself, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” wasn’t one complete thought, but rather two sentences pieced together by the filmmakers from a clutter of thoughts. There wasn’t a single question and an answer — but viewers wouldn’t know that from what they saw on television.
Lawyers for Durst will brand those edits as manipulations when they head to trial later this year, the Times said.
Kehoe said she watched “The Jinx” a number of years ago, and has no qualms with how the filmmakers spliced Durst’s remarks.
“I would’ve done it, I’ll tell you that. I would’ve totally done it,” she said.
“I would’ve definitely weighed the ethics of it, but I wouldn’t have spent a lot of time protecting Durst. I think after making that documentary you’d have a pretty good feeling that he killed those people.”
True-crime documentaries have reached new heights of popularity in recent years, giving filmmakers an immense power that ripples through the news media and justice system. Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and the Michael Jackson expose “Leaving Neverland” have injected new attention into legal cases and allegations that once seemed of another era.
Kehoe suggested while documentaries are based on true stories, she believes viewers should watch them as “a piece of art,” rather than an entirely factual recount, since they’re constructed in an editing room.
“It’s not like a legal document, it’s interpretation,” she said.
“The documentarians aren’t saying ‘We tried him, judge and jury,’ they just presented their version of what that story was.”
Kehoe pointed to a long history of documentaries that have endured — and often thrived — in the face of questions about their authenticity.
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film “Nanook of the North,” considered one of the earliest documentary films, follows the life of an Inuk man named Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic. However, many scenes were fabricated.
The protagonist wasn’t actually named Nanook, and the filmmaker replaced his rifles with spears, in hopes of preserving the traditions before they died out. It’s now considered a classic of the genre.
More recently, the BBC acknowledged its “Human Planet” series included an Indonesian tribe moving into a treehouse to live, but it was later revealed the scenario was entirely constructed. The broadcaster said it responded by revising its ethical guidelines.
Larry Weinstein, whose film “Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies” showed at this year’s Hot Docs, said audiences put a “sense of trust” into documentarians, but added that defending the use of “choice words” from Durst in the HBO series is “tricky.”
“I am guilty of doing something like that once in one of my films… and it haunts me to this day,” he said.
The documentary was “Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story,” which recounted the communist composer’s life. Weinstein included an interview with Georg Knepler, a “good friend” and colleague of Eisler who was part of a tribunal that screened proposed works for Communist state approval. In one scene, the filmmaker says the German-speaking man became emotional while recalling part of the story, and struggled with the English words, saying “I can’t go on.”
Weinstein said in his film’s context, it doesn’t seem like the man is having trouble expressing himself, but rather that he harbours a guilty conscience for his negative impact on Eisler’s art.
“It was like I tried him, and I was the jury, and I kept it there. People who knew him hated me for doing that,” Weinstein said.
“I felt bad about personally hurting someone who helped me, but I wasn’t convinced that I was wrong.”
Giving the subjects of a documentary greater say in the final project can be a more prudent approach, some filmmakers suggested.
The co-directors of “Conviction,” which explores the growing number of incarcerated women in Canada’s prison system, say they offered inmates who appeared in their film the authority to veto scenes. Much of the footage was recorded on cameras by the prisoners themselves.
“The women… collaborated in the edit, they saw everything in the film before it went out. It was very much their choice what they wanted to show and what they didn’t,” said filmmaker Teresa MacInnes.
“They certainly didn’t have editorial control over the entire piece, but they did with their portions.”
“Conviction” shows the women operating their cameras in the opening moments of the documentary, offering viewers the sort of transparency that may be lacking in the final moments of “The Jinx.”
“It’s a conflict sometimes when it comes to documentary because it is real life, and it is people and we do have an impact,” MacInnes said.
“These are ethical issues we live with, and it’s a heavy burden.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press