Catfish, the Khmer Rouge and Ethical Documentaries

This Friday sees the release of Enemies of the People and Catfish. Both are raw, digitalized documentaries that speak of the documentarian’s newfound portability. Both, in their own way, have at their core highly intimate and personal revelations. Both play out chronologically, as if they exist in time as it is experienced. But, in terms of their ethical attitudes and the questions they raise, they are poles apart.

One is a slightly dated but probing, highly accountable piece of videojournalism. The other is something entirely different – a film that eludes category altogether.

Enemies of the People, a collaboration between experienced BBC documentarian Rob Lemkin and senior reporter for the Phnom Penh Post Thet Sambath, traces the cautiously developed relationship between Sambath and Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s Brother Number Two and one of the chief architects of the Khmer Rouge. Sambath travels to the killing fields to meet and talk with the simple farmers asked to act as the executioners – mere cogs in the Khmer Rouge’s grand program. These men and women have lived with the stench of death – literally – for decades.

Rob Lemkin, who accompanied Sambath to the killing fields and documented the exorcising and visceral disclosures of violence from these kindly, giving people, said:

“The most important thing is that all times there was totally informed consent. That’s important with filmmaking of this nature. There must be a consensual nature where people could be unburdened and be feel free to talk about past crimes and past atrocities that they have been forced to live with. Informed consent for people who don’t have electricity in their houses, who don’t watch television, who don’t actually understand filmmaking, is quite complex. So at all times when we were filming I was showing the tape back and we were discussing constantly.

“The film making process was actually quite a small part of a much bigger process. They had signed up with Sambath to tell the truth for the world and for their society and for their country. They were on that process when I met them. All the time, that was the primary process. On a personal basis, telling the truth would not only help them to deal with their own guilt and trauma but would also attempt to bring some light to the period and contribute to the social good in some kind of way. All times these people all felt that the film making was always just a kind of that bigger process.”

The other is Catfish, a collaborative film between brothers Nev and Rel Schulman and their friend Henry Joost. Catfish is filmed with pocket camcorders, documenting the unfolding romance between Nev and a mysterious girl called Megan – a Facebook friend who becomes something much more intimate. It has began to be recognised as a film that explores the consequences of social media. Equally, the consequences of documenting reality are exposed.

Catfish has received months of festival buzz. Conversations have centered, repeatedly, around what kind of film it is. Is it a documentary or a fiction? Is it scripted, or were the filmmakers skilful and committed enough to film a narrative which seemed to write itself? Or, is it an ornate hoax – a mockumentary of grotesque proportions?

As the New York Times critic A O Scott writes: “Judged by the usual standards, it is a wretched documentary: visually and narratively sloppy; coy about its motives; slipshod in its adherence to basic ethical norms. The filmmakers, who occasionally appear on camera, shoot and edit with at least minimal competence, but their approach to the potentially volatile and undeniably exploitive implications of their stumbled-upon story is muddled and defensive. Shame on them, if that would mean anything to them.

“But at the same time — precisely because of these lapses — Catfish is a fascinating document, at once glib, untrustworthy and strangely authentic.”

But the film’s purposefully unconstructed, almost brash familiarity has a lineage. Catfish recalls the masterful Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason, in which an aging, Afro-Caribbean hustler from the wrong side of New York is exhorted to tell to the camera his most intimate feelings and baring vulnerabilities. The difference is – Jason was filmed in one evening, Catfish over the course of a year. Inference asks how considered this path of discovery truly was.

On its reveal when Nev and Megan are finally united, the film as a whole shits a gear, gaining sensitivity and some sympathy; it has little choice but to. But nevertheless, the queasy sense of voyeurism when watching these scenes is almost over-powering.

“They weren’t aware we were shooting for the first 30 seconds,” says Henry Joost. “We said to them, we’ve been making a documentary up this point and we’d like to tell your point of the story. Is that ok?

“I felt, when we found out what was going on, that we had to really take a step back, and let this person tell their story, and be documentarians.”

We’re never shown this moment of consent, and this begs questions. Did the filmmakers have a right to document the reality they found? How much did they manipulate it with dramatic conventions like, for example, editing? The subjects who become key cogs in the film’s machinations were asked to sign release forms before the film could be released. They have been absent from public view since. Only one interview was granted (for the ABC programme 20/20), and the word ‘schizophrenia’ was used in the course of it. Should this reality have been redacted or, as with Claude Lanzmann’s //Shoah//, did the compelling nature of the truth revealed act as justification in itself?

As A O Scott writes: “Mr. Shulman and Mr. Joost will continue to enjoy the success and cachet of having made a pop culture conversation piece, which is a tribute to their good luck and nimble opportunism. But the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”

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