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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Documentary filmmaking blends art with nonfiction

Friday, March 4, 2011 | 3:28 p.m. CST; updated 3:43 p.m. CST, Tuesday, March 8, 2011

For documentary filmmakers, the line between fact and fiction can be a treacherous one.

This weekend that line will be tested as thousands will descend upon Columbia to experience a smorgasbord of offerings at the True/False Film Festival, a four-day event featuring documentary films from around the world. "Benda Bilili!" follows a paraplegic music group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and "An African Election" details the crucial 2008 election in Ghana.

With these stories and many others, directors must choose between cultural immersion and passive observation. If caution is ignored, a director's ultimate goal of telling a true narrative can become exploitive.

As more directors blend staged elements with nonfiction, another issue arises: Is there a place for art in nonfiction documentaries? The debate between those practicing pure journalism and those who utilize artistry to convey their message is growing.

The festival's founder and two directors of this year's films analyze the intricacies of modern documentaries and examine ethics and authenticity as they see it from behind the lens.

We discuss these issues and more on this week's Global Journalist.

Highlights from this week's guests:

In studio: David Wilson, founder and co-director, True/False Film Festival

"One thing about both of these films is that both are fairly immersive … Both came out telling fairly optimistic stories, which is often what one doesn't see with stories coming out of Africa. Yet, here are two filmmakers who put themselves in situations and understood the situations. To me, it says something that you came out with a story that was more positive in a way and found really hopeful stories, but not without their ups and downs."

In studio: Renaud Barret, co-director, "Benda Bilili!"

"It makes it possible for you to immerse yourself, and people forget the camera. You don't judge things and point them in a 'Michael Moore' way. You let more people talk and be themselves. You explain their world through their eyes and not through yours … You give people time and let them talk because you don't want to impose your visions on things."

Los Angeles: Jarreth Merz, director, "An African Election"

"We documentary filmmakers run the risk of exploiting our subjects. There's the ethics of a documentarian where there's rules you should be following, at least some of my teachers said that in the '80s. Then again, you have to break all of these rules to get what you want. Sometimes it's walking a thin line."

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