A Fragile Relationship

18 mins read

“I was afraid I was starting to buy into the bullshit,” says filmmaker Alex Gibney halfway through his documentary The Armstrong Lie, about disgraced U.S. cycling icon Lance Armstrong.

What he and so many others were buying into was a fairy tale. Armstrong, raised by a poor single Texan mother, grew up to be a cycling champion, winning the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times. In his prime, he was felled by testicular cancer and given a less-than-50% chance of surviving. But he overcame the disease and started the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised more than $500-million for cancer-patient support. In 2009, he defied the odds and returned to racing, all the while vehemently denying allegations he had used performance-enhancing drugs.

Gibney had intended to make an inspirational film about Armstrong’s comeback entitled The Road Back. As Gibney acknowledged to Screen Daily, Armstrong gave access to the director—an Academy Award winner for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side —in return for a share of profits. While Gibney wasn’t deaf to the growing chorus of Armstrong’s detractors, he says in the film, “I was caught up… I couldn’t help but root for the old pro, and he promised he was doing it clean.” The filmmaker hoped the movie would end with Armstrong recapturing his Tour de France title.

Not only did that not happen—Armstrong finished third in 2009 and 23rd in 2010—but two years later, the United States Anti-Doping Agency accused the cyclist of taking and trafficking illicit drugs. In light of the growing evidence, Gibney shelved the film. Then Armstrong finally admitted in a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey that indeed he had doped, although he denied doing so in 2009 and 2010, despite peculiar discrepancies in his performances.

Gibney insisted Armstrong return to tell him the truth on camera, which the athlete did after speaking with Winfrey. Fortunately for Gibney, he retained editorial control. If the originally conceived movie had been released before Armstrong’s public confession, it would’ve been seen in retrospect as pure hagiography and harmed its filmmaker’s reputation. Instead, Gibney was able to re-cut the footage, put himself in the film and take over narration from Matt Damon. Re-titled The Armstrong Lie, it is now a film about a hoax systematically perpetrated on an all-too-willing public—and a filmmaker conned into being an accomplice.

It’s a cautionary tale for documentarians navigating their fragile relationships with their subjects. Getting too close to a person one is profiling or approaching them with too much reverence can cloud objectivity and tip the scales of balance—these presumably being standards to which non-fiction filmmakers aspire.


Quality balls
Toronto director Barry Avrich feels his 2013 film Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story was compromised not only by the fact he wasn’t the producer, but also by his closeness to Winnipeg-born comedian Steinberg.

“He said to me, ‘Documentaries tend to be downers and I want a different kind of film,’” Avrich tells POV. “There was much in the arc of a comedian’s life I wanted to talk about that I couldn’t—including his ex-wife and family, because that’s not where he wanted to go. There are lots of celebrities [in the film], and it becomes ‘What a great life this man’s had.’ He was very lucky for a long time, but there was a long period of not working and depression and we don’t deal with that.”

Steinberg also objected to the title Quality Balls —a characteristic Jerry Seinfeld attributed to him. So the film was temporarily renamed _Prepare for the Worst_—which is something Steinberg does before performing. According to Avrich, it was only through the persuasion of Steinberg’s friend Billy Crystal that the comedian finally agreed to the original title. But despite these restrictions and conflicts, Avrich insists he’s “very happy. It’s a very entertaining film.”

Sometimes censorship comes from without, and sometimes from within. There were several topics Avrich chose not to explore in his 2002 documentary Guilty Pleasure: The Dominick Dunne Story, about the former Hollywood producer and investigative journalist who famously covered the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair. Avrich is an unabashed fan of Dunne and was amazed by the access the writer granted.

“I went to his estate in Connecticut. He let me into his world. He showed me crime-scene photos of the O.J. Simpson trial [the public’s] never seen,” Avrich recalls.

Avrich steered clear of some of the more personal aspects of the bisexual Dunne’s life. “I didn’t deal with his sexuality,” the director says. “I did not deal with the fact that he was obsessed with taking down the rich and famous because of the chip on his shoulder—with reference to the murder of his daughter Dominique and how shabbily he was treated in Hollywood. He got thrown out in a haze of coke because of bad movies. I dealt with that a little but didn’t go deep because I loved him.”

This is not to say Avrich did everything to please Dunne. Regarding the Simpson chapter, the film provides a platform for lawyer Edward Greenspan, LAPD detective and witness Mark Fuhrman and defence attorney Johnnie Cochran, who criticize Dunne’s coverage of the trial. After seeing an advance copy, Dunne demanded cuts, but Avrich would not comply. It created a rift between Dunne and Avrich that the director eventually patched up. “He understood there needed to be that yin and yang in the movie,” Avrich says.

He points out that the surest way to avoid such conflicts—not to mention lawsuits—is to document dead people, as he did in The Last Mogul (2005), about longtime Universal Studios head Lew Wasserman, An Unlikely Obsession: Churchill and the Jews (2011) and Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (2013). “My mother always prefers that,” he says with a laugh. When dealing with living subjects, he adds, “[t]here are so many wonderfully famous stories out there that need to be told. Sometimes you get too close, sometimes you don’t, but as long as you tell a great story, who cares?”

Getting to know you
It’s challenging to make an unbiased film about your friends and idols, but what about someone who has been an enemy? Paul Saltzman came up against this while making his 2012 feature, The Last White Knight: Is Reconciliation Possible?

For the film, Saltzman reunited in 2007 with Delay De La Beckwith, a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) member who attacked him outside a Mississippi courthouse in 1965. Back then, Toronto-based Saltzman had driven down to the Magnolia state to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in helping register African-Americans to vote. That was one year after three SNCC workers were murdered by the KKK, and two years after the assassination of black civil-rights activist Medgar Evers. Byron De La Beckwith—Delay’s father—would eventually be convicted of Evers’ murder.

Delay agreed to meet Saltzman on camera at the scene of their 1965 exchange and participated in four more interviews over five years, which provide the backbone of a film focusing on Delay’s life and the roots of bigotry. Despite their violent shared history and Delay’s racist rhetoric, in a twist at the end of the film Saltzman tells Delay he actually likes him.

Many audience members have told the director they find Delay undeniably charming, which disturbs them. And has Saltzman been charmed? Has the fact Delay participated in the documentary, provided family photos and sat and talked with Saltzman without resorting to violence—despite showing that he carries a gun—resulted in a film that goes too easy on Delay’s beliefs and actions?

The director acknowledges in the film that he might come under fire for saying he likes Delay. As it turns out, several festivals have not wanted this human face to racism and have rejected the film, one responding, “We’re not going to give [Beckwith] any screen time.”

Saltzman emphasizes that any positive feelings he has for Delay are clearly no form of endorsement. “In the film I’m very specific in what I say I like about him. I say, ‘We disagree entirely. However, I like that you were willing to show up. I like that you’ve been willing to be honest, therefore I know who you are. And I appreciate and value that you were willing to speak your truth,’ because then we’re in dialogue and we’re not punching.”

He adds that a positive rapport with one’s subject is a step toward clarity. “If the object of documentary filmmaking is to uncover truth and to go deeper into the human condition and the human experience, then it doesn’t matter if you agree with your subject or not,” he says. “The director’s job is to have the subject feel comfortable enough to reveal himself or herself—the feelings, the philosophy, the actions—in an effort to try to get into the deeper reality of the world.”

Why can’t we be friends?
If a filmmaker is profiling a living person and finds it necessary to have that person’s voice in the film, the challenge then becomes to keep their journalist’s hat on.

Jayson Blair, the focus of Samantha Grant’s debut feature, A Fragile Trust, certainly didn’t uphold journalistic ethics. Blair was a young reporter for The New York Times who was caught plagiarizing and fabricating stories. He subsequently resigned from the prestigious daily and was followed out the door by the _Times_’ executive editor and managing editor.

The San Francisco-based Grant made a short about Blair as the thesis film for her master’s degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She had tried to get Blair to sit for an interview, but he only agreed after the short had been delivered. Grant then felt that expanding the idea into a feature-length doc would be worthwhile.

“I hoped that with a bit of reflection, perhaps there would be some
new insights into what had happened and that perhaps Jayson would be a bit more penitent or would have some more things to say about what he had done,” Grant says.

Blair participated after much lobbying by Grant. “His agreeing to be interviewed was definitely not linked to him seeing the film or having any input or feedback about the final version of the film,” says Grant, who presented A Fragile Trust at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in January. (It airs on PBS May 5.) Audiences have expressed surprise about Blair’s cooperation as the film recounts behaviour many would find reprehensible.

“Jayson Blair is—or was—a journalist and understands the compact between journalist and subject,” Grant explains. “I made it crystal clear that my goal was to tell a balanced and true version of what had happened, and that I was open to his input, but it would not be a film entirely from his perspective.” One contributing factor the film explores is the tremendous pressure on journalists to turn over scoops quickly in the digital age.

Blair provided Grant with childhood photos and access to e-mails from his final months at the Times. He also agreed to read excerpts from his memoir, Burning Down My Masters’ House. Grant includes some of that footage and uses some of the audio as voice-over in other parts of the film. The director says some viewers have interpreted Blair as the film’s narrator—and his words can be complicated to accept given his record of telling untruths.

“Jayson could be interpreted as the narrator, but the way the film is edited it’s made very clear that your decision to trust this narrator or not is really up to you, and based on what you know and what you’ve seen, you know he’s not reliable,” she explains. “Somebody asked me if I thought Jayson was ever manipulating me and my answer is ‘no.’ Do I think he ever thought he was manipulating me? Maybe.”

Grant says that outside of their three interviews, she and Blair had one meal together and spoke over the phone a couple of times, mostly for coordinating logistics. “I was not interested in becoming friends with Jayson Blair. Sometimes when you’re working on a documentary you can develop friendships and lifelong relationships with your subject after the film is done, but this was definitely not that kind of situation,” she says.

During production, Blair sent Grant a Facebook friend request. “I had to write back and say ‘I can’t accept. We can’t be Facebook friends because we’re not friends and I’m making a film about you and that would be inappropriate.’ It’s a very unique relationship. You are telling the story of someone’s life and that’s a huge responsibility.”

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