Degrees of Truthiness

We opened our reading group with a discussion of the film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. The film addressed themes of loss of humanity, faith, and gender relationships; we began with the basic question of why the characters in Rashomon told the stories and lies that they told, and why people tell stories and lies in general. We tried to describe the complex narrative structure of the film, which involves narrations of a conflict from three separate perspectives followed by a witness’s account of what actually happened and a larger philosophical framing of the story with respect to questions about the forces aligned against telling of objective truth.

Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon raised a number of questions relevant to our own filmmaking experiences.

Given that our films are narrated and contextualized by people with a certain point of view, what are our obligations to some larger kind of truth, as opposed to the immediate truths of these peoples’ experiences as they see them and as they accounts for such experiences? Since our filmmaking strategy is partially based upon juxtaposing multiple partial perspectives, we drew many parallels between the structure of Rashomon and the structure of our films — in particularl, the immigration team’s film, which involves a juxtaposition of (a) the raw video of an immigration raid with (b) the perspectives of people who were subject to this raid, along with (c) the perspective of police officers involved in the raid and (d) the perspectives of immigration law scholars.

When we don’t have a personal stake in a given issue in our film, how do we juxtapose the different claims made around this issue by the people in our films? Or is it impossible to detach our personal beliefs from the issues we are filming? And how do we account for our films’ viewers‘ beliefs and experiences, and shape our film in the context of those experiences?

In Rashomon, Kurosawa used certain cues and techniques to suggest that a certain account of the story was the more objective account – specifically, he used music during the three “subjective” accounts and no music during the final witness’s account. We discussed how we could use sound (or lack of sound), lighting, and montage to convey lower and higher degrees of truthiness. For instance, we can use certain musical techniques as leitmotifs to identify not just certain emotions in our films but also certain broader character arcs. This can sometimes verge on the cheesy if used in too obvious a way, but it can be an essential technique in documentaries and is often employed by Errol Morris and others. We also need to be attentive to how we use backgrounds to grant (or deny) objectivity to our interview subjects, and to whether we are using any of these techniques, intentionally or not, to sow doubt regarding our characters.

In response to claims made about the didacticism of some public media and simplified message/issue pieces, we talked about how ambiguity can serve to engage the viewer in some cases without detracting from the main point or theme of a film. We need to think about how to preserve this ambiguity while keeping certain truths (and our larger narrative arc) clear. Ambiguity can open up a specific experience so that it attracts broader themes and a broader reading, enabling the audience to see different things from a production. We can move from a generally relatable story to the audience’s own experience with similar stories – and remember that the most important thing in any kind of advocacy piece is to maintain a balance between taking viewers through a story without hitting them over the head with the question of how they are connected to the story. We also noted that adding complexity and critical thought to public discourse can be a positive outcome in itself. And even if a viewer comes to the “wrong” conclusion, we will still be able to show that viewer the real human experience of someone in the film.

Valarie then described her own storytelling model with a diagram of a multi-point circle based upon her experiences in making Divided We Fall:

  • identifying issues to explore;
  • interviewing subjects and drawing near to them – and to some extent putting aside predetermined issues and frameworks for the time being, in order to help make filmmakers and interview subjects fully human towards one another;
  • then, withdrawing from the immediacy of the subjects in the editing room and cutting/balancing these stories in service of certain themes (and juxtaposing multiple accounts of these themes);
  • next, trying to determine what is at stake for the audience;
  • and finally, determining how to prompt the audience towards some kind of action.

The remainder of our meeting was devoted to a discussion of the structure of our course for the spring semester, and how we hoped to develop our films over the next several months. This spring, the emphasis of our meetings will shift away from discussions of reading and background material, and towards production.

In the interest of focusing on filmmaking during the coming semester, we then set up several group timelines around dates at which we hoped to complete sequences in our films and submit them to one another and for faculty review. We planned to finish a rough version of our films by March 22, and a final version of our films by April 26, the date of our last meeting of the academic year, for final screening purposes. We also discussed prioritization and division of labor within our teams as to camerawork, editing, and expert interviews.

At the conclusion of our meeting, we emphasized how happy we were about all the time everyone had devoted to the class, and looked forward to the prospect of devoting even more energy to the Visual Law Project over the next several months.

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  1. Donald Jones
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I am writing a book about rap music. I also try to “juxtapose” multiple perspectives. The is the perspective of the mainstream -whose views are compromised by a politics of fear-of cultural envelopment; there is the perspective of the black middle class- which seeks respectability; and there is the perspective of the people who produce the music. While there are objective truths which pertain to who the different stakeholders are, their interests, their conflicts I am not sure there is a single objective truth about the music itself. I wonder if there needs to be a resolution of what is “true” , rather a notion that to understand the music- you could substitute film- you must nonetheless look at it from the perspective of the person or community who produced it. I am of course not advocating the intent of the author but rather a need to contextualize and to situate oneself within the context.

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