The Importance of Truth and Transparency in Historical Films

Paper by Ashley Cope.

Documentary-like docu-dramas have become ever popular in the past few years. With the rise of these ‘based on true events’ documentary-like films has raised the question of how much responsibility a filmmaker has to provide the truth in these films, or if filmmakers have creative liberties when creating ‘based on true events.’ Through a comparative analysis of three docu-dramas; The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), and All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) this paper will examine where these ‘based on true event’ films are following history and adding in creative liberty. In movies that claim to be based on historical, true events, filmmakers do have a right to storytell for the purpose of entertainment, but if they choose to do so disclaimers should be included at the beginning or end of the film about anything that was not historically accurate shown.

A docudrama is a dramatized retelling of historical events in films; named docudrama from combining the words documentary and drama. These types of movies are increasingly popular and can help bring awareness to different subjects in history. For example, The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is a fictionalized movie based on the lives of people in East Germany in the 80’s when the Stasi, Secret Police, were in full operation from the post World War Two Soviet Union occupation of the area. The Lives of Others fictionalize a story about a turned good Stasi member, Wiesler, who protects Dreyman from getting arrested when he is working against the state. This story of Wiesler, the good Stasi is completely fictionalized by Donnersmarck. This could give people the impression that there were actually good Stasi members but in reality there was not. But at the same time this movie brings awareness to a history in Germany that not many people know about. In Gerry Coulters “Visual Storytelling and History as a Great Toy- The Lives of Others” Coulter says “For ninety-five percent of my affluent Canadian university students who watch this film in class, this is their first exposure to any information concerning the Stasi (who ceased operations around the time that these students, now 19-21, were born).” This movie brings an awareness to the history of East Germany that many people do not know about, which is one of the great impacts this film has had on the world. But at the same time it gives a romanticized view of the Stasi and does not show the horrors that they did. This is why filmmakers like Donnersmarck should provide a disclaimer in the film about the falsification of a good member of the Stasi.

Another docudrama that is based on true events is DownFall directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel which also shows another side of German history that is not often depicted in film. Downfall shows the last 10 days of Hilter in the bunker before he committed suicide, and shows how his followers reacted to his death. Unlike The Lives of Others, DownFall at the end of the film shows pictures of the real people the characters were based off of and explains what happened to them in real life after the fall of Nazi Germany. This is a great example of how a docudrama that is based on true events can show the audience where the information from the film came from. In Downfall Hitler is portrayed very realistically, and is shown with his shaky hands caused by Parkinson’s disease. This raises some questions about if Hilter should be allowed to be shown as human in films like Downfall, because of the amount of people he was responsible for killing. Well, this only brings attention to a side of history people do not know about. Hirshbiegel directs the movie like a documentary, even though it is not, and does not pick a side but rather shows the side that is not often shown in films. “Hirschbiegel tells us that Downfall ‘opened up a whole new territory,’ that the film’s ‘new approach to history’ had avoided the mistakes of previous interpretations but completely disensing with normative judgements. We have to ‘get beyond guilt,’ for there and only there lie ‘the facts’” (Bathrick and Magshamrain 7). Filmmakers who are making films that are based off of true stories should follow Hirschbiegel lead in the responsibility to tell what was true and what was fictionalized, and to tell stories that are not often told; because it brings attention to events that many are not aware of.

Thirdly, All the President’s Men directed by Alan J. Pakula is a docudrama based off of a book written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about the investigation that led to the exposure of the Watergate Scandal. This scandal would cause President Nixon to resign from office in 1974, after the start of his impeachment trails. This film is based off of a first hand account of the Watergate scandal and the reporters that exposed Watergate: Bernstein and Woodward. Much like Downfall, All the President’s Men also included an ending that showed the charges of the people portrayed in the film. In the end of All the President’s Men Pakula includes a shot of the newsroom angled in on a television showing the inauguration of Nixon, taking a position on the matter by trying to emphasize the oath that Nixion broke to the American people, before showing the charges of everyone involved. In this the filmmaker is directly taking a position on the issues shown in this film. This does change how the film is perceived and is verging away from the documentary-like film. By doing so Pakula is making a statement about his beliefs much like an academic would in a paper. In docu-dramas like All the President’s Men it is important to tell the story that needs to be told truthfully, but Pakula is at the end of the movie adding in his political stance on this film. Doing this helps well wrap up the movie and leave the watchers with a position he wants them to take on the film.

On the other hand, Pakula should be careful of adding in his own opinion into historical-based films. Everyone has biases. Much like journalist filmmakers must do their best to be as objective as possible when making films about historical events; it’s a responsibility to tell the stories they choose to tell as truthfully as possible because it will affect the way people remember history all over the world. That is why it is important for filmmakers to include disclaimers at the end of films ‘based on true events’ showing what was real and disclaiming any story enhancing they may have added to the films they create. Hirschbiegel’s Downfall does a good job at staying objective, in the film viewers can not tell if he is taking a position or not, but rather just trying to inform the audience on the events that happened in the last 10 days in the bunker. In other movies such as The Lives of Others by Pakula these films are based on true events but can be seen as taking a side on a particular political issue in history. In Peter Biesterfeld article “Documentary or Propaganda” he states “ offers a useful defi- nition: propaganda is the spreading of information in support of a cause. It’s not so important whether the information is true or false or if the cause is just or not — it’s all propaganda” (Biesterfeld 1). This is why it is important for a filmmaker making a film about a historical event to try not to take sides, because it then by definition is propaganda. Filmmakers should avoid turning historical based films into propaganda until they are openly telling people the purpose of said film was to build support for the cause they choose.

Furthermore, documentary filmmakers have a higher expectation to tell the truth than docu-dramas like The Lives of Others, Downfall, and All the President’s Men. Filmmakers that make documentaries also have to balance the fine line between truthfulness and propaganda. From a journalist perspective the easiest way to do so is to use first hand accounts from as many people as possible in order to confirm claims made and be as accurate as possible. In documentaries filmmakers must do the same thing to the best of their ability to be able to show truthful information to their audience. Through first-hand accounts and footage of the actual events documentary makers are able to be as objective as possible. In docu-dramas there is less of an expectation to get first hand accounts from people involved in that historical event. But it is important for these filmmakers to be able to research the history beforehand and be as transparent as possible when storytelling for the sake of the film they are making. In Tracy Mathewson’s “The Privatization of Justice Within the American Conspiracy Film” she addresses the growth of Conspiracy docudramas in the 60’s and 70’s, like All the President’s Men. In this she brings up the issue with these docudramas being focused on the hero-trope- but the heroes are almost always men. “All the President’s Men largely erases female involvement from its history – either by ignoring Bernstein’s first wife, a fellow Post reporter, with whom he was divorced in 1972, the year of Watergate’s exposure, or by omitting the involvement of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, except when she was the butt of a crude remark. Despite her notoriety as America’s first female publisher of a major newspaper, All the President’s Men sees no place for ‘one of America’s most influential women’ (Coleridge 1993: 12); her control over the Post is delegated to executive editor Benjamin Bradlee and other male editors. Moreover, the majority of women in All the President’s Men are simply heard and not seen: either speaking with only portions of their body present or as voices on the telephone” (Mathewson 10). This is another issue that many documentary and docudrama filmmakers need to be aware of. In many films and movies biases against involvement of women and people of color have been left out of historys. It is important for filmmakers to include all the most prominent and important people in their films to represent everyone and to properly show the truth in historical events. Documentaries and docudrama have a responsibility to be as truthful as possible and have accurate representation of the people involved in the historical events being shown.

Considering the many issues shown in docudramas and documentaries, filmmakers- especially those making films about historical events- should follow a code of ethics. According to Allison Milewski of PBS’s article “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmaking Ethics” The Center for Media and Social Impact set three ethical codes they suggest filmmakers follow. This includes: “1. Honor your (vulnerable) subjects. Protect them from attack and don’t leave them worse off than when you met them. 2. Honor your viewers. Make sure that what they understand to be true and real wouldn’t be betrayed if you told them where and how you got that image. 3. Honor your production partners. Do what you contracted to do, even if you made that bargain with yourself” (Milewski). For documentaries and docudramas the filmmakers should follow code of ethics to be as truthful as possible and to accurately represent every; so there will not be any more issues like All the President’s Men, and the many other docudramas of that time, that forgot vital people in history in there stories. This is important because these films change the public’s perception and knowledge of these historical events; so it is ever important to as accurately as possible represent these historical events. By writing down and following a code ofethics, it will eliminate a lot of these problems and even help change society through the work they are putting out in films.

Altogether, when consuming documentaries and docudramas it is important to do outside rearch on the topics being shown in the film. This will help correct any historical inaccuracies that have been shown in popular docudramas in the past, and also contribute to the discussions that these film open people up to. Documentaries and docudramas are great ways to bring attention to things that have not been discussed by society, so it is important for both the filmmaker to be as truthful as possible when telling these stories as well as the audience to participate and learn more about the topics on there own. It is important for current and future filmmakers to reconize there biases and be able to see them in order to create more historically accurate documentaries and films. Through filmmakers following a code of ethics, providing disclaimers, and being informed of personal biases the film industry can begin to move towards being more historically which in turn would better educate and influence the public. The Lives of Others, Downfall, and All the President’s Men are only a few of a many different docudramas. Through analysis of this three films it shows why it is important for filmmakers who choose to storytell about historical events to provide further information or disclaimers at the end of films to clarify what information is not historically accurate.

Works Cited
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