The Perfect Story
(Canada, 74 min.)
Dir. Michelle Shephard
“Don’t become part of the story,” Michelle Shephard reminds herself in The Perfect Story. It’s a golden rule of journalism, but not necessarily of documentary. Shephard straddles her complementary roles as journalist and filmmaker as she traces her unlikely journey with Ismael Abdulle.
The Perfect Story revisits a 2010 piece that Shephard broke while serving as a national security correspondent for the Toronto Star. The tale is Abdulle’s account of having his hand and foot cut off by the terrorist group al-Shabab. Shephard relays how the Somali refugee escaped his homeland with her help. She also offers context for the narrative, as her 2010 article reported that Abdulle was subjected to al-Shabab’s violence because he refused to join them. As Shephard looks back on her coverage of Abdulle, her recollection shows how she followed her golden rule by staying objective while constructing a compelling news report and human-interest story.
Shephard brings the yarn into the present as she notes how Abdulle, now living in Norway for several years, suggested she make a documentary about him. The film shows a perfectly cordial and professional relationship. Shephard and Abdulle are friendly, and there’s a sense of mutual respect built upon nearly a decade of familiarity. The director, however, explains in voiceover that Abdulle quickly buckled after they began filming. Rather than merely reporting on the story, though, Shephard’s curiosity and concern leads her to a specialist in PTSD. He suggests that Abdulle experiences delayed symptoms of PTSD that are potentially triggered by a related event.
Shephard follows Abdulle back to Mogadishu to film a reunion with her friend and his family. The situation on the ground, meanwhile, is tense. Shephard’s experience in conflict zones kicks in. Something isn’t right.
Abdulle starts acting weird. He then gifts Shephard another whopper. This one, however, is more of a bombshell than a nugget. Without giving too much away, Abdulle makes Shephard reconsider all she’s heard before. For a journalist, this development puts her amid a minefield. There are years’ of stories and professional fact-checked reportage on the line. Shephard can’t help but become part of the story. Once Abdulle drops his surprise, the story changes: it’s no longer Abdulle’s version alone. It’s both his tale and Shephard’s story.
One on hand, Shephard lets herself explore how readily one can be willing to accept the perfect story. She examines the blind spots in the tale she reported. Abdulle’s revelation also twists, or amplifies, the inadvertent white saviour narrative to Shephard’s account. (Of which she is clearly conscious and doing her best to navigate, while also doing her best to serve Abdulle’s interests.) On one hand, Shephard’s prior article made a hero; on the other, her gaffe now forces her to confront the power dynamics that come with telling another person’s story. The latter is already on her mind as she and Abdulle travel to Mogadishu where he experiences his hometown anew. A security convoy escorts him while a per diem he receives as part of the production offers comfort. Shephard asks at what point the narrative changes, and if one can, or should, divest oneself from telling another’s tale.
Journalism vs. Documentary
The film makes a provocative consideration of journalism and documentary storytelling. Shephard explores the dynamics of objectivity/subjectivity that often distinguish journalism from filmmaking. While Abdulle’s credibility as a source changes, his value as a documentary subject arguably improves with the burden with which he relieves himself. However, the account also evolves in that a documentary should offer more than reportage. Shephard admirably captures Abdulle’s revelation with dramatic vigour: Abdulle remains compelling because his hunger for a better life becomes more apparent in the reveal.
The Perfect Story, though, feels like it’s missing part of the story. Shephard ends the tale rather abruptly. There’s a great on camera interview in which she lets Abdulle come clean, followed by some ruminations of her own in voiceover, but it’s missing the “something else” in which the query goes beyond the expected narrative. Shephard has all the pieces and all the questions for a richer consideration of journalism, ethics, objectivity, and narrative, so it’s a bit of a disappointment that she doesn’t run with it. She captures Abdulle’s tale in a brisk and engaging 74-minute caper that has one hooked: the fish is ready to reel in, but it’s tossed back to sea. The Perfect Story, as it is, offers a riveting story nevertheless, yet one suspects there’s bigger fish waiting to break through the surface.
The Perfect Story screens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Oct. 5 and 6 as part of the Doc Soup series.