Film-makers should pause for thought

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MOST regular viewers will have suspected some time ago that British television has been corrupted by the narcotics trade. It tries to get along without the easy high of menace and machismo offered by drug documentaries, but it just can't kick the habit. Wait for long enough and you're sure to find more grainy footage of furtive deals or interviews with concerned policemen.

But few viewers can have realised to what lengths the addiction would drive some documentary makers. Revelations about the extent to which Network First's award-winning film The Connection was synthesised indicate just how desirable such stories have become - and, as with drugs, if you can't score the real thing you can always try to grow your own.

Viewers might not realise but compression and reconstruction are the staple building blocks of modern documentaries. On any evening of the week it would not be hard to find films which compress extended events into a neater chronology or which arrange to have real occurrences re- enacted for the camera. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to find films in which such accommodations are not employed.

The problem is that the professional's notion of probity and that of the audience have drifted apart. Talk to documentary makers and you encounter two principle defences for any departure from straightforward observation.

The first is the Higher Truth argument, by which any tampering with unsatisfactory actuality is defended on the grounds that it merely compensates for the deficiencies of the camera. If people are unlikely to commit crimes in front of a film crew then, the argument goes, it is entirely legitimate to reconstruct such a crime so it can be represented on screen

The second is the Sophisticated Audience argument, which insists that television viewers are now perfectly aware of the manipulations involved in all documentary - and if the viewer already knows that a film offers a manufactured version of reality then there is no need to distract them further with captions distinguishing the real from the reconstructed. In fact, - as Channel 4's Right to Reply regularly demonstrates - audiences continue to take a purist line on such matters. This belief in the authenticity of all they see is sometimes ingenuous but it is not discreditable.

As the Network First case suggests, it may be time for documentary makers to become more simple-minded themselves. "The Connection" is not a monstrous anomaly among British documentaries, it is an extreme example - which should make all filmmakers pause for thought.

Thomas Sutcliffe, TV critic