Viewpoint: Michael Cascio on “faking it”

My recent column in the September/October issue of Realscreen magazine took on the question of whether it’s acceptable to include unlabeled recreations or other manipulated footage in a documentary. Yawn. ...
November 5, 2021

My recent column in the September/October issue of Realscreen magazine took on the question of whether it’s acceptable to include unlabeled recreations or other manipulated footage in a documentary. Yawn. Privately, a few producers and academic types gave me a general nod of approval. But on the whole, the issue seems to boil down to: “Yeah, it happens, so what else is new?”

This debate has been going on since the ’90s — the 1890s, when a filmed recreation of the Battle of Santiago in 1898 was faked using toy boats and cigar smoke. The discussion got louder one hundred years later when some overly “produced” reality series appeared to make faking it fair game. The issue seems especially relevant now, with trust in the media at an all-time low. After all, if you can’t believe what you see and hear in a serious documentary, what can you believe?

The latest incident to re-ignite the debate is the documentary Roadrunner. Director Morgan Neville got torched in some circles for using an artificially created voice of the film’s subject, Anthony Bourdain. Critics pounced. “This tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project,” tweeted one outraged observer. A Washington Post reporter similarly tweeted: “This sucks.” Neville had apparently violated an unwritten rule about faking things in serious documentaries, but shrugged it off: “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Well, let’s have that discussion now, please. The primary question: What kind of responsibilities do we have in producing documentaries and factual programming?

As a network executive supervising all kinds of factual programming, I was rarely in favor of outright recreations. I understood that you need them to tell the story of King Tut, and no one would be fooled into thinking the footage of ancient Egypt was anything but what it was — a cheesy recreation. And it’s different if you’re recreating the bullet trajectory in the Kennedy assassination, where the reenactment is purposeful and labelled as such. But it was especially annoying to see faked footage supposedly used to improve a story, even if what you’re seeing was completely made up and wasn’t actually part of the scene and not identified as a recreation. This was faking it. To me, we were misleading the viewer about what really happened. It was also lazy. For producers it’s sometimes easier and more fun to recreate the story instead of combing the archives or using other creative techniques –- POV shooting, movement on still photos, clever graphics, better writing, more in-depth interviewing, slo-mo, pacing, and so on.

But I was swimming upstream and probably out of touch. I come from a news background where faking it was discouraged or forbidden, but I had to accept that very few professionals in long-form production seemed to think that fakery might call into question their integrity or their projects’ veracity. Basically, it was OK to fake it without telling the viewers. So I gave in.

The audience has spoken. End of story. No one cares.

Still, I worry that we’re selling out long-term truth for short-term gains. Serious documentaries are the last bastion of in-depth video journalism. I’m not talking about mass market reality TV. No one cares if, say, The Real Housewives is real – or even if they’re housewives. We expect those shows to entertain us in the same way that we watch scripted drama and comedy. The criticism facing Neville, however, is especially loud because he is justifiably respected for his documentary work (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Twenty Feet from Stardom), and because simply revealing the practice might have stemmed the critique.

Make no mistake, journalistic standards still occasionally prevail. On PBS, Ken Burns will use audio or still photos to make the story come alive without faked action for action’s sake. And news-based programs such as 60 Minutes and Dateline have perfected the art of non-reenactment recreations (e.g., the empty swing set representing the missing child). But they’re the exceptions.

My take is that the more “filmmakers” try to make a feature film instead of a factual documentary, they’re more likely to enhance the visuals or audio to fool the audience into thinking what they’re seeing is real — just like a scripted movie. They’re not covering the news, so those rules don’t apply. I’ve seen it happen at so many levels that raising an objection is seen as a quaint impediment. One boss actually told me about our factual programs, “Just don’t call it journalism.”

When it’s articulated, the argument in favor of faking things boils down to this: All documentaries fake things in many ways to tell a story. Editing, shooting, audio, music, lighting — they’re all manipulated to create a mood or message. So why can’t a reenactment be used in the same way, as long as it conveys the overall truth? Sometimes, there just isn’t enough visual material to cover a great story, and it seems to be the only way to show what happened.

Except that it didn’t happen that way. And a camera wasn’t there.

The fact is that all those other tricks of the trade are generally acceptable. But outright fakery of video violates that code of ethics that snared Morgan Neville. (Never mind that his sin involved audio of Bourdain, it was a primary violation.) The practice undermines credibility of documentaries in general and is specifically designed to trick the viewer.

So, what’s the answer? More documentarians are finding alternatives to tiresome recreations. Most notably, there’s been an increasing use of animation that seems to address this issue with impressive creativity. And user-generated video is so ubiquitous that it seems likely that an event will have been recorded –- on surveillance video if nothing else.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the audience. Instinctively, they can differentiate between what is generally real and what is low-brow fakery. But it will take vigilance on the part of the production community to establish standards that make the distinction clearer to viewers when things look real but aren’t.

Admittedly, I’m still swimming upstream, and I understand that few others seem to feel the same. Reaction to my Realscreen column sounded pretty much like what I’d heard at the Realscreen Summit of 2004 — it’s an ancient debate unlikely to resolve anything.

Call me an impractical idealist, but I believe in the value of setting limits. Real is real and fake is fake. If you start from that premise, you have to rely on making everything else work to tell the story. Sometimes, that may seem to be more trouble than it’s worth. But the integrity of the production may make the effort worthwhile.

[Editor's note: In a Q&A that was part of the International Documentary Association's live screening series, Neville offered this as part of his reasoning for using AI to replicate Anthony Bourdain's voice in Roadrunner: "Basically, to synthesize Tony's opinion on how to approach an edit is to break every f*****g rule. If you play it safe, you failed. Be punk rock. Take no prisoners. Challenge all the norms. And so I said, 'well, here we go. Tony's telling me to do this.' And I'm still glad we did. I stand by it."]

Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the New York Times revealed how his experience as a janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.