Beauty is A Kind of Truth

As we all know, the accessibility of film making is at an all time high..for better or for worse! The documentary film genre has undergone mutations, a multitude of new directorial perspectives, a glut of content (from Juggalos to post nuclear disaster aftermath), a near constant permutation of stories, even spawning low life, everyday docs in everyone's home in the form of the dreaded "reality" tv.  A lot of people argue that the increase in documentaries, and the unrealness of "reality" tv further blur the line between the real and unreal, fact and fiction, in a potentially damaging way... but, so what? All stories are retold so what makes documentaries, and for that matter journalism even, a lesser account of what really happened? This is an issue that has skirted around me the last few weeks, probably stemming from my incessant boring re-telling of the story of "how I broke my leg" but also concurrent with a lot of culture I've encountered in recent days too.

I kept hearing a lot about Ken Burns' The Central Park Five film, a piece about the wrongful conviction of a group of wilding teens in the late 80s who were branded as the vicious attackers of a (the?) Central Park jogger. I finally saw a preview of the dvd and the film is incredible. A well researched (the story was actually Burns' daughter's college thesis which then was adapted into a book & then film) document on not only the case, treatment, and lives of the boys but also a stunning portrait of a dangerous, dirty graffiti covered, racially tense New York of days long gone (some of the archival NY footage portrayed a city I had only read about and had distant foggy childhood memories about, of prostitutes & panhandlers flooding every street, a version of the city that the city seems to want to forget; read Malcom Gladwell's essay on "The Power of Context" in The Tipping Point for more scope on this not-so-distant NY past of terrifying confused justice). The Central Park Five follows in the footsteps of Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, Morris' first feature that exonerated an innocent man on death row and included stylistic concepts that would become the heart of this sub-genre of modern historical justice tale; talking heads, dramatic interludes of symbolic images, archival film footage. These types of films are a kind of documentary/journalism that often act as a historical document, or reparation, or a revision: they loudly undo what the past lauded as truth or add to an already existing understanding of a particular time & place. The boys, now men, convicted of the rape and murder in Central Park deserve their voices to be heard again and this time away from the context of harm, guilt and corruption....a thing the police tried to shelter so much they subpoenaed footage Burns had used for the film in order to resist a court case in which the boys were suing the NYPD. The thing that I find slightly unnerving about people urging or applauding the documentation of truth- a thing I came in contact with a lot when promoting Gravity, a "true" story of fantastical interlude- is that the nature of documentation- films, journalism, photos, etc- are all stories retold through they eyes of another. How is anything accurate when even our eyes see colors differently? This inherent inaccuracy of, well, life, is a fact that the play Not What Happened (as presented by the Vermont Performance Lab this past weekend), pointedly shone a spotlight on.

The play centers on a historical reenactor performing the life of a woman from the late 1700s and the actual woman, both with the ever-so obvious name "Silence." The interpretor is a modern gal, recounting the "facts" to her audience/tour of what is known about the life of this long dead lady. Piecing together faded headstones, embroidered pillows, pieces of a letter found in a chimney moved to make way for the highway- all fragments of a life that others have recreated into a version of history. The "actual" Silence begins her appearance through broken speech, gesture, slowly building up her identity as she tells us hazy vignettes of events as she recalls them- sometimes even resorting to simple sound effects to describe an action. The play was accompanied by a series of beautiful black & white photographic projections by the artist Forrest Holzapfel,  artistic and obscured historical artifacts, unexplained relics of a time past. The fact that this was a play, an acting out of layer upon layer of fictions, with short hints at a historical realness, further clouds the validity and questioning of what is fact for the audience's eyes.  Language lies, stories lie, even pictures lie and the truth is only in the experience and the existing knowledge we believe as truth that we bring to each new thing we experience.

I know that this outlook, the one that nothing can be trusted or that all artifice is a turbulent sea of truths, might sound bleak or paranoid or confused, but it really isn't. Truth in history is not an easy thing to capture, truth in artistic pursuits related to history is even moreso. When thinking of where your information is coming from, where the portrait in front of you was painted, what person the news is so quick to villify for your attention/ad traffic sales, it is smart to take it all with skepticism. When I think about documentary film- and all other forms of truth revolving pursuits- I am not thinking about seeing a solid piece of history, I am thinking about seeing an interpretation of information. I am thinking about how all of what I know will create another version of what it is I am taking in and add to the wide open ocean of fact and outlook that one would think the internet age would wholly comprehend? People like to say that truth is beauty but nothing is ever really truthful making the beauty only in the eye, and mind, of the beholder...

A FREE screening of The Central Park Five is to be presented by Rooftop Films in NY tomorrow night with the men whom the film is about on hand for a Q&A. For more information click here. Images from film/case at top.

The next staging of Not What Happened will be at Silvermine Arts Center June 22nd & 23rd.
An exhibit of the photographs from the play will be on view at the Catherine Dianich Gallery in Brattleboro, VT until July 26th. Images from a previous project by the photographer at bottom.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.