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Michael Apted: Keeping the Line Between Fact and Fiction Sharply in Focus

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — For Michael Apted, it’s not critical whether a story is told as a documentary or as a narrative, he says. He’s done both, having begun his film career with the almost accidental invention of the “longitudinal documentary” with 1963’s “7 Up!” and its follow-up editions every seven years, following 14 Britons throughout their lives.

Later, filming the story of a shootout involving Native Americans in South Dakota, which resulted in the deaths of two FBI agents in 1975, he first took on the story as the docu “Incident at Oglala” in 1992.

He then retold a related story loosely in the narrative “Thunderheart,” starring Graham Greene and Val Kilmer and several of the subjects of the original nonfiction film that same year.

What’s important is not to blur the border between fact and fiction, says Apted.

The recipient of a lifetime achievement award in directing at Camerimage, Apted is well versed in both docu and narrative, having also directed classic fact-based dramas from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to “Gorillas in the Mist” and, more recently, full-on escapist fiction with Bond flick “The World Is Not Enough” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

Apted, who chairs the Camerimage jury in the Students Etudes section, admits he finds the increasing blurring of the boundaries between narrative and docu film “disturbing.”

The rise of docu-fiction films, which may include actors reliving real events with a script, or non-actors re-enacting events from their lives or entirely made up sequences with composite characters, is troubling to Apted, he told a crowd of colleagues and students at Camerimage.

“You have to be honest with yourself,” said Apted, but, as a filmmaker, you must also “add your vision.”

Reenactments within docus, when clearly labeled as such, can be a useful storytelling tool, he says, but there’s danger “when people get cavalier.”

Ethical issues in docus and fact-based stories are complex, Apted confesses, and he’s made some calls that have earned him sharp criticism, as in the case of “Gorillas in the Mist.”

The zoologist and anthropologist who inspired the Sigourney Weaver film, Dian Fossey, lived in the jungles of Rwanda for 18 years, almost single-handedly saving the mountain gorilla from extinction by poachers, Apted says.

Many believe she was eventually killed by poachers hired by the government, which was concerned about an increasingly troublesome Fossey frightening away wealthy tourists by shooting at them, he said. He chose not to include this chapter in her life, he says, because her heroism was genuine, whatever later became of her quest.

The emotional impact of her courage “shouldn’t be sullied by the pure truth.”

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