Guilty Pleasures: Five Documentaries That Made Me Feel Dirty After Watching Them.

Catfish

I’m always cautious when using the term ‘guilty pleasure’. It’s an overused phrase often meant to describe those ‘so-bad-they’re-good’ genre movies that just don’t fit into any other critical description. I’m of the mind that if I like a film, I have no reason to feel guilty about it. That said, within the non-fiction world I do think there are films that could literally fall under this classification. They’re those documentaries that push ethical boundaries, walking the fine line between exploitation and entertainment. This list looks at five films that I’ve found entertaining or fascinating in one way or another yet might have felt a little guilty for enjoying. They’re not necessarily bad films, they’re just subversive non-fiction experiences that raise the question “What journalistic responsibilities does a documentary filmmaker hold?”

CATFISH
Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

This section is taken from my full review of Catfish, which you can read here.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Overall, my theatrical experience with Catfish was a fairly positive one. I found myself completely caught up in the story and at times, experiencing actual anxiety during some of the key revelatory sequences. The way in which the last forty minutes of the film reveals itself is both fascinating and sad. It wasn’t until I had had some time away from the film that I started to rethink my experience, questioning the overall purpose of the film and how the filmmakers might have gone about capturing this unusual chain of events on camera. Any reservations I have basically come down to the fact that I don’t totally buy the idea of the lead character, Nev, falling so hard and so fast for this online girl he’s never met. I do think all of the events that unfold in the second half of the film are real, I’m just not sure that I believe the guys were as naive as they made themselves out to be. Rather than killing the suspense (and the film) by simply googling a few names and resolving the mystery in the first ten minutes (like most people with any sort of experience with the internet would do), they toy with this mystery woman under the guise of a budding online romance. Maybe I would’ve found the whole thing easier to swallow if their intentions were clear from the start; to solve a mystery. But to what end? I’m still trying to figure out the overall purpose of the film beyond simply being an engaging, sensational mystery. I can’t help but feel this cautionary tale warning that ‘things aren’t always as they seem on the internet’ is about 10 years too late. I would imagine the idea someone assuming a false identity online is quite obvious to anyone with even the most remote computer experience (especially the web savvy twenty-somethings in this film). Its the information age equivalent of ‘if placed over head, plastic bag may cause asphyxiation or even death’.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Angela’s role in this whole thing. Part of me thinks she was manipulated and exploited but she’s certainly guilty of her own brand of deception. I guess I just get uncomfortable with the idea that the filmmakers might be trying to make an example of her. There’s a point in which they say they’re concerned about embarrassing her, but Nev contradicts this in a scene where he asks Angela to speak in her ‘Meghan’ voice. It’s a self-aware and truly uncomfortable moment that’s more accusatory than exploratory. It was revealed on this weeks episode of 20/20 — dedicated to exploring Catfish — that Angela is schizophrenic. Does this change anything? Did the filmmakers knowingly take advantage of a mentally ill woman? She says she doesn’t feel like she was exploited, but what about her husband? He didn’t agree to be interviewed for the special, so I imagine he might be having mixed feelings about appearing in a documentary distributed by Universal Studios. That said, who am I to judge whether or not these people are mentally capable of knowing whether or not they’re being taken advantage of? Maybe it’s presumptuous to stand up for someone who’s perfectly fine with being a part of a film like Catfish.

Catfish is one of the more troubling, complex and ultimately fascinating films of the year. While I don’t think it’s particularly deep or worthy of some of the praise it’s been receiving, it’s no doubt one of the more engaging documentaries I’ve seen in some time and has definitely started some interesting conversations. I will definitely be revisiting it in the future in hopes of coming to some kind of decision on whether or not I feel it’s an example of daring, subversive non-fiction filmmaking or merely an extension of sensational reality television. Either way, it was a great mystery at the expense of the participants; the true definition of a ‘guilty pleasure’.

AFRICA ADDIO
Directed by Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi

In many ways, Africa Addio is a beautiful, mesmerizing piece of filmmaking that embraces the concept of non-fiction as a truly cinematic experience. Director’s Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi single handedly invented the ‘shockumentary’ with their travelogue film ‘Mondo Cane': a sometimes humorous and often grotesque piece of exploitation cinema that had a surprising amount of success, spawning a sequel and a series of Mondo rip-offs (including the notorious Faces of Death). While Africa Addio contains a great deal of artistry, it still revels in the same sort of graphic and sensational material that’s likely to turn most viewers’ stomachs. Upon its release, the film drew controversy with accusations of racism (the assertion that white, British colonials were the only thing keeping the people of Africa from killing each other) and even charges of on-screen murder. Director Gualtiero Jacopetti was actually tried in Italy for allegedly paying a soldier to execute a man on camera (he was acquitted). It’s definitely a complicated viewing experience.

While the film clearly stages some of its sequences, there’s still a great deal of harrowing and disturbing footage that’s truly genuine. In one sequence, the directors managed to capture some of the only footage of the Zanzibar Revolution, filming mass graves of slaughtered Arabs from their airplane. They’re clearly attempting to offer some critical social commentary through the portrayal of on-screen carnage but in the end, it doesn’t feel totally sincere. A combination of misguided narration and some exploitive directorial choices usually end up undercutting their message. For example, a huge chunk of the film is spent documenting the needless mass slaughter of African wildlife through poaching and game hunting. While the footage is extremely powerful and grotesque, the temptation to push the limits of taste is too great. The graphic death of an elephant is taken to the extreme with a horrific image of a fetus being cut from its stomach–an unnecessary footnote. Still, I can’t help but be completely mesmerized by the imagery and craft on display throughout the film. Africa Addio consistently walks the line between photo journalism and exploitation cinema.

It’s worth noting that there are three versions of the film, two of which run at around two and a half hours. The original Italian language cut is supposedly the least inflammatory and most accurately represents the intentions of the filmmakers. Meanwhile, the English language version includes a smarmy narrator and some tasteless, poorly over-dubbed dialogue added into documentary sequences. Finally, an 80 minute version of the film retitled ‘Africa Blood and Guts’ was released to capitalize on the horrific images, practically eliminating any political elements of the original cut.

I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW
Directed by Sean Donnelly

There are some moments in Sean Donnelly’s unsettling stalker-doc I Think We’re Alone Now that truly made me wish I could hide my face in embarrassment. Two men (one with Asberger’s Syndrome and the other an intersexual) openly and emphatically describe their obsession with 80’s pop star Tiffany. While I found the subjects completely fascinating, I couldn’t help but feel they were almost TOO open. Their comfort on camera almost seems to stem from their social disorders rather than any sort of deep, trusting relationship with the director. It almost makes me feel like a sitcom Mom accidentally stumbling upon her kids open diary. They just don’t seem to realize how crazy they sound. If that’s not awkward enough, Donnelly manages to arrange a meeting between the two at a Tiffany concert, resulting in some truly uncomfortable bickering and jealousy. Aside from highlighting the already clearly bizarre behaviour of these men, I’m not really sure the scene adds much to the film overall. I Think We’re Alone Now walks a fine line between sincere curiosity and exploitation but, guilty as charged: I found it fascinating.

SICK: THE LIFE & DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST
Directed by Kirby Dick

Kirby Dick’s Sick is a bit of an oddity on this list because I really don’t think the filmmaking is in any way exploitive or sensational. That said, there’s no denying that Bob Flanagan, the ‘star’ of the piece, indulges in self-exploitation and self-sensationalizing. It’s actually the major conceit of the film: a man with cystic fibrosis eases the pain of dying through the his sadomasochistic performance art. Dick’s camera is simply responsible for capturing the story and the images which, at times, are excruciatingly tough to sit through. If you’ve seen the film, we’re probably both thinking of a particular moment that’s fairly gruesome. It’s a scene in which *SPOILER ALERT* Flanagan nails his penis to a board. In close up. With blood dripping. On the camera. There’s no denying that it’s a stomach turning moment, but the scene that really got to me was Bob’s last moments in his hospital bed as he slowly succumbs to his disease. It’s such an intimate moment that you almost feel like you shouldn’t be watching but, in the end, it’s perfectly in line with Bob’s exhibitionistic lifestyle. In fact, he would only agree to taking part in the project if his death was captured and included in the final film.

JEFFTOWNE
Directed by Daniel Kraus

Jefftowne is what happens when Troma Studios distributes a documentary (for the record, I love Troma). Director Daniel Kraus chronicles the life and times of Jeff Towne, a man with down syndrome who regularly indulges in the finer things in life: beer, wrestling, and pornography. I suppose the idea is to subvert the traditional ideas associated with people with disabilities, humanizing a guy who most people might just feel sorry for. In reality, Jeff is a bit of a manipulative, mischievous dude who seems to knowingly take advantage of the sympathy of others–especially the girls. He lives with his adoptive grandmother who reveals to the camera that Jeff was actually the child of two first cousins, explaining his physical disorders. There’s also an extremely embarrassing moment in which the delusional grandmother explains a ‘money deal’ that she’s working on with a ‘publishing company’. It turns out she’s been receiving regular letters from the Publisher’s Clearing House and believes she is a part of an 11 million dollar moneymaking deal.

There’s a moment where a friend of Jeff’s says that people are too nice to him; that he knowingly takes advantage of their kindness and they give him whatever he wants because they think he’s stupid. This side of Jeff definitely comes out in the film and almost makes you wonder if accusations of exploitation might simply be the result of a knee-jerk reaction to a film about someone with a mental disability. Maybe it’s more of a litmus test for the audience and their own politically correct sensibilities. At times it’s a bit of a freakshow, but Jefftowne isn’t a worthless experience. It feels like a real life Harmony Korine film that has some wonderful moments but is perhaps a bit misguided in places. I’m cautious in passing judgement on the real life relationship between Jeff and director Daniel Kraus. I’m sure there’s a sincere friendship there but it’s not surprising that his portrait of Jeff might draw criticism. The exploitive nature of Jefftowne almost feels unintentional, resulting from some inexperienced, clumsy filmmaking.

HONOURABLE MENTION:

CHICKENHAWK
Directed by Adi Sideman

I haven’t actually seen Chickenhawk but based on this ten minute YouTube preview, it seems like it could easily have a spot on this list. (Thanks to James for bringing this one to my attention. You have wonderful taste my friend.)

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