Last month, after the release of his latest documentary, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” Morgan Neville disclosed that he used artificial intelligence to simulate the voice of Bourdain. Outrage ensued and writers used it as an opportunity to pen headlines that said the project served as a reminder that documentaries aren’t journalism.
But while it’s true that documentaries have never been a part of the fourth estate — an institution whose ability to be completely objective is debatable — most documentaries set out to expose a truth via journalistic tactics including research, making sense of the facts and interviewing subjects. This year many such projects — including “City So Real,” “Allen v. Farrow,” “Framing Britney Spears,” “The Social Dilemma” and “Welcome to Chechnya” — received Emmy nominations.
Veteran docu filmmaker Steve James says while he is a “nonfiction storyteller,” that does not relieve him of journalistic principles when making a documentary. James’ five-part National Geographic docuseries “City So Real” is now nominated in the documentary or nonfiction series category and nonfiction cinematography category. About the city of Chicago, the series follows the 2019 Chicago mayoral election, Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus pandemic unfolding in the present. James did not use narration to guide audiences through the numerous storylines.
“In the course of making what we filmed into a series I wanted to reflect the complexities, nuances and the contradictions that I witnessed and not sand off those edges and make it simple or have a clear point of view,” he says. “We tried to remain as completely open to where [the story] took us as possible. A lot of times journalists go out with a clear goal in mind, including what they want to say and then find those things to confirm it. We tried to absolutely not go in that direction.”
HBO’s “Allen v. Farrow” received seven Emmy nods, including one in the documentary or nonfiction special category. Series directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering describe themselves as investigative filmmakers, not journalists. But the duo says that they held themselves up to journalistic principles while making the four-parter about allegations of sexual assault made by Dylan Farrow against her father, Woody Allen.
“If you’re presenting information, you should do a rigorous corroboration as a journalist does,” says Dick. “We certainly did.”
When making “Framing Britney Spears (The New York Times Presents),” which garnered two Emmy nods, including one in the documentary or nonfiction series category, director Samantha Stark says journalistic measures allowed her to accurately tell the titular pop star’s court-sanctioned conservatorship struggles, despite not having the star appear in the series.
“Our two tenets were to include people who told stories about working with [Spears] from their own experience and their own perspective of what happened. We also spoke to people who could comment on our culture and how our culture treated [Spears],” she says.
Former photojournalist Jeff Orlowski interviewed numerous ex-tech honchos at Google, Twitter, Facebook for Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma,” which looks at the dire consequences social-media companies have on the human psyche. In addition to interviews, he included narrative sequences.
“The idea for the narrative came out of the ability to bring to life the [social-media platforms’] algorithms,” Orlowski says. “To showcase what those social-media platforms are doing to each and every one of us in terms of the way we see, think about and understand the world.”
Nominated for seven Emmys, including documentary or nonfiction special and documentary/ nonfiction directing, “The Social Dilemma” is one of many documentaries that have weaved narrative production elements with talking heads to emotionally illuminate the subject at hand.
Filmmaker and journalist David France relied on technology to make HBO’s “Welcome to Chechnya.” Nominated in the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking category, the docu details the horrific persecution facing LGBTQIA-plus identifying people in Chechnya. For the film to be seen, France had to protect the identities and lives of the Chechnyan refugees interviewed for the doc. To do that he used face replacement technology — an artificial intelligence technology that allows users to replace the faces of people in videos with anyone of their choosing.
“I was reporting out an ongoing event of global significance, so I needed to make sure that my journalism and journalistic principles were guiding the way the story was being told,” says France.
While “it had to be truthful,” he also “wanted to make sure that there was an element of consent at every level — consent from the individuals who were being disguised, consent from the people who were giving their faces as disguises and consent from the audience. I wanted to make sure that everybody knew exactly what was happening so that it was no longer something that was standing in the way of the journalism.”
In “Welcome to Chechnya,” which was the first documentary ever to be shortlisted for a visual effects Academy Award, France makes it clear to the audience up front that such technology was used. Similarly, in 2014’s “Life Itself,” about film critic Roger Ebert, James used a voice actor to read from Roger Ebert’s blogs and memoir. But he didn’t inform audiences that Ebert’s voice was being read by an actor until the beginning of the doc’s end credits.
“If I had to do it over again in the world we’re living in now, we might have indicated the very first time this voice came on screen that this was an actor doing Roger’s voice just for clarity’s sake,” says James.
Full disclosure of his use of A.I. in “Roadrunner” might have saved Neville from any ethics controversy. But either way, Neville is a storyteller — as are James, France, Orlowski, Stark, Dick and Ziering. They tell stories based on information about people, places, crimes and current events — stories that rely on emotional engagement. They are all in the business of entertainment, not journalism.
When speaking to Variety before the “Roadrunner” controversy erupted, Neville said, “People say, ‘These filmmakers put this fictional element in the film, isn’t that wrong? I’m like. ‘No. Do whatever the fuck you want.’ I am not the documentary police. Anything goes as long as it’s ultimately about trying to find a truth.”