Found-footage sourced from YouTube documents the escalating exploits of an apparently typical lower-middle-class family in Dean Fleischer-Camp’s subversive constructed narrative “Fraud.” Previously best known for his award-winning stop-motion short “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” Fleischer-Camp here stakes a claim in conceptually sophisticated documentary territory with a film that, despite frenetic cutting and a lean runtime, rewards contemplation and patience. The audience will be smaller and more specialized than the approximately 40 million views collectively accrued by the three “Marcel” shorts, but festival programmers looking to shake things up would be wise to fall for this “Fraud.”
Gary, like millions of Americans, loves to document his family life. Whether his wife and two kids are unboxing a new iPhone, visiting the mall or taking a trip to the Big Apple, his camera is ever-present, capturing the daily trials and tribulations, the myriad tiny moments of joy and all the ennui in between that comprise a reasonably representative existence for someone his age, nationality and income bracket. To begin with, it appears as if this might be all this film is interested in showing — it’s not a bad subject, after all. But soon, and with an exquisite sense of narrative control, Fleischer-Camp and Rippon begin to sketch a different portrait: first of a family in over its head financially (those iPhones don’t come cheap, after all), and subsequently of an audacious attempt to wipe the slate clean.
While the mounting debts of an everyman might seem like the starting point for a classic film noir, Gary’s original camerawork has a hectic, vividly restless quality to it that verges on nausea-inducing, making this a difficult watch on the big screen; its natural home is probably VOD. This is the understandable result of the fact that the footage was genuinely intended simply for Gary’s family’s YouTube account: Between 2008 and 2015, Gary uploaded over a hundred hours of home movies to the dominant user-generated content platform. Enter Fleischer-Camp, who stumbled upon Gary’s account and apparently spent some years mulling over how to turn it into a documentary before arriving at the premise for “Fraud.”
The result feels deceptively raw yet elegant: In constructing a fictional narrative from genuine footage, Fleischer-Camp arrives at something that, like this year’s Sundance hit “Operation Avalanche,” pushes the boundaries of documentary, gesturing at larger truths. Where some documentaries aim to objectively reflect a subject, “Fraud” recognizes that the notion is a fallacy. Any camera lens can only ever be a funhouse mirror, incorporating the distortions that the filmmaker’s choices (framing, editing, what to show, what not to show) bring to the table.
Fleischer-Camp and editor Jonathan Rippon’s subtle recontextualizations illuminate the family’s attempt to live their lives as outlined in omnipresent commercials as both illogical and understandable — this is not a film intent on hanging its subjects out to dry. The impulse to earn happiness through acquisition is followed to its logical conclusion, with only the narrative’s more outré elements requiring footage from other YouTube sources. The only rule is that no footage is staged.
Rippon, the helmer’s regular collaborator, must share credit for the project’s success. The immediate connections and juxtapositions he forges between sections of footage from Gary’s archive, which in reality were shot years apart, feel almost supernaturally intuitive — it’s hard to spot the joins. Like a good act of sleight-of-hand magic, it’s the fluidity of the project on a technical level that makes it persuasive, allowing the themes to breathe: It would be hard to focus on the picture’s implicit consumerist commentary if we were constantly trying to spot the rabbit up the magician’s sleeve.
At Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, the film world-premiered to considerable controversy, with its director called a “con artist” and “liar” during post-screening Q&As by audience members presumably secure in their adherence to more traditional definitions of documentary. Festival programmers pursuing a reputation for risk-taking and innovation would be wise to check it out. Beyond festivals, the film’s commercial prospects seem uncertain, although it’s easy to foresee a future retrospective of Flesicher-Camp’s work in which “Fraud” features as a rediscovered early-career gem — likely seen by too few at the time.