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The Role of the Documentarian
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In this week's Movie Answer Man, Roger Ebert defends Michael Moore's editing:

Q. Why does Michael Moore get so much flak for the editing in his films? All documentaries are edited by someone with an agenda. I've even seen people use quotations around the word documentary when describing his films, as if they are not really documentaries.

Jolon Buchbinder, Cincinnati, Ohio

A. Those people do not know what a documentary is. Many times, it documents opinions and arguments, not "facts" (and yes, there I will use quotation marks). They complain not about what the documentarian did, but what he didn't do that they would have done.

Well, he's right that many times a documentary documents opinions and arguments, but the goal is to actually present them, as free as possible from the taint of the opinion of the person behind the camera. It seems the ultimate goal of the documentarian should be the truth. I'd admit that documentaries span the range from attempting flat-out, unbiased-as-possible news, to flagrant editorializing. But even editorials have an obligation to present things as truly as possible.

And it's strange to me that someone who has spent his entire life studying film and its techniques can be so apparently blind to the transparent techniques of Moore.

Imagine a documentary on the subject of the relationship between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Imagine a montage of shots detailing Siskel's final days, the conditions of his brain tumor, and his ultimate death. Then imagine a shot of Siskel's gravestone, with a voiceover like "Roger Ebert was Siskel's partner in reviewing film, but also his closest friend...or was he?" Then cut to a shot of Ebert laughing and enjoying himself at a dinner party, with the voiceover continuing, "After Siskel's death, Ebert filled Siskel's shoes with Richard Roeper and continuing to reap the profits of the franchise he and Siskel had built. Thumbs up, Roger!"

Would such a film be morally reprehensible? Hell yeah. Would any of it be technically false? No. But what I've described are two of Moore's favorite techniques: omitting highly relevant information, and playing fast and loose with the timing of events. It would be omitting Ebert's public statements of grief and friendship, and would imply that Ebert was not upset by his friend's death. By displaying Ebert laughing and partying in temporal proximity to a shot of Siskel's tombstone, the implication would be that Ebert was a callous, uncaring bastard, but if the dinner party scene occurred six months after Siskel's death, it wouldn't be a lie to present it happening after Siskel's death, would it?

I hope you can see here how someone can utterly misrepresent events through editing, while hiding behind the claim that nothing in the film didn't really happen. That's what makes Moore a propagandist, and not a documentarian, and why Ebert should be ashamed of defending him.

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