Documentary, Fantasy, and Mirrors.

Getting rid of my television has indeed proved a very fruitful experience. My couch is now slid around to face the fireplace in my living room, and while I haven’t started many fires lately, the place already seems homier. I even brought back my record player, and yesterday I took a nap listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scherezade.” The absence of the television seems to be the re-birth of intentionality.

I’ve spent several evenings out on my patio watching things as diverse as the Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella and a collection of short films from Resfest (my favorite so far is a humorous take on how to behave in a sushi restaurant) on a laptop.  As an interesting note, when outside, I am more easily distracted by the natural world.  I’ll admit that was part of my intention in going outside, and it’s a welcome diversion.

The eclecticism of my movie diet is also intentional, but reflects diverse (unfocused?) taste.  I try in many areas to achieve a balance, and with movies it is no different.  Lately, I’ve been hoping that Food, Inc. would get screened somewhere near where I live (it’s currently playing in Ann Arbor, but I haven’t gone. . .yet.  Lots to do at home).  Food, Inc. promises to be the Inconvenient Truth of the food industry.  Already the “food” movement has been paralleled to the smoking industry, and organic, natural, etc. food movements gain ground daily.  Film seem to be the tipping point of many social movements.  Either they reflect what has happened, and audience then remember that time, event, etc., like Medium Cool or Easy Rider or as has been the case with more and more documentaries, they are a part of the social movement.  Not everyone may read the book, but you can get just about everyone to watch a movie. Put a trailer and a clip online, and give people something to do after watching the film (join the movement! Go to, or dot org, or dot gov, etc.).  This in itself reflects changing social behaviors.  The movie works differently than it used to.  Food, Inc. will change things.  They were already changing, but the documentary film is the educational tool of choice.  I don’t think that is necessarily unhealthy, but it ought to come (like all movies) with the caveat that all films are political (to paraphrase the editors of Caheirs Du Cinema) and all films come from a point of view.  There is a frame, and this necessarily means there is limited scope.  The documentary may reflect real life, it may capture “true” actions and words, but it is still made in the editing room, and people always act in front of a camera.  The moments where the facade has come off still prove them most dynamic in docs (see Jackie Kennedy’s hands in Primary).  But when that happens, our attention should shift to the filmmaker who is “capturing” the “real event.”

Truth is also told in fiction, but it is a different kind of truth.  It is the truth hidden in ideology, symbolism, and metaphor.  Both effect us.  I’m going to see the new Harry Potter film in an Imax theater next week (a friend and I made plans a while ago).  Harry Potter, CGI graphics, and a larger than life screen all are obvious artifice, they are fantasy.  Fantasy is full of fictional truth.  It has to be, otherwise we wouldn’t care.  And fantasy is so popular, people must be relating to it.  Is it just the action, the special effects, the music?  A couple of weeks ago, I gave the 4th Annual Aunt Jen’s Super Galactic Star Wars party.  I am amazed at how much my neices and nephews love Star Wars.  I promise, I did not brain-wash them.  There is an appeal.  George Lucas, Bill Moyers, Mary Henderson, Stuart Voytilla, and a host of other people have talked about the mythic structure and influences.  I could go on and on in this direction, but I’ll stop myself to say: our imaginations feed us.  Out, watching Cinderella on my patio, I’m in my own little corner, being whomever I want to be.  On the wings of my fancy . . .there is freedom in fantasy.  And those dreams and visions have an impact on how we live our daily lives, and what our tomorrows will be like.  How many new electronic gadgets seem “right out of Star Trek“?  Isn’t it odd that the designers of these electronics are from the generation that grew up watching Star Trek?

Oddly enough, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will be screened on the same bill as Under the Sea 3D and Journey to Mecca.  The former is billed as a documentary, the latter is a drama bookended with documentary footage.  Mirrors of the “real world” and expressions of the inner world.  Non-fiction and fantasy.  Last spring when I was directing Chekhov, I repeated my favorite Edward Albee quote so often that my cast and crew new it by rote (they even gave me a framed mirror with an exerpt printed on) but I’ll cite it again. “I think anyone who takes the time to write what we refer to as a serious drama” Albee said, “is holding a mirror up to people and saying ‘Look, this is the way you behave, this is who you are. If you don’t like it, why don’t you change.'”  Stories, both fiction and non, are mirrors that reflect who we are.  Documentaries for social change make great use of this device.  But what of fantasy?  Or romance? Or adventure?  Perhaps these are a reflection, or expression, of what we want to become.  Perhaps that image needs to be projected in order for us, the audience, to get a sense of what life might be like.

These are the two things that film does, intentionally and unintentionally, that are the most powerful.  They show us who we are.  They also give us a vision of what we can become.  All films are instruments of social change, and the sooner we understand them, the sooner we will become more intentional with what we watch, and what we ask our children, neighbors, and friends to watch.  We should not deny the truth, and we ought to pursue dreams of the future that are positive (figuring out what is positive is altogether another task . . .)  A healthy diet of Romance and Realism, of waking up and dreaming, of action and vision.


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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