Fact is often stranger than fiction. It’s a tagline used too in a promo by the BBC. Yet when it comes to retelling rich, immersive, emotionally-laden stories it’s fictional cinema’s account of events, rather than television journalism that usually catches the audience’s imagination, younger ones in particular.
Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackson as Senator Gary Hart running for US President in 1988 joins a long list of films bookended with the caveat: “based on a true story”, to which you could add, Nixon (1995) The 33 (2015) and famously All the President’s Men (1976) based on Bernstein’s account of Watergate.
Front Runner unveils a turning point in American politics as Democratic Presidential hopeful Gary Hart is forced to retire from the race because of a suspected in flagrante liaison with a 29-year-old actress Donna Rice. The quality press had introduced a man’s character into a story, something which hitherto was the tabloids’ bread and butter, and cinema had long entertained. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In a glass-laden office within the BBC some years back, I’m reaching the end of a 100,000 word dissertation on journalism’s future. A senior executive proclaims quite strongly “Oh no we don’t do fiction”, when I ask about cinema as a panacea to journalism’s woes, hence exposing a general lack of knowledge about cinema.
Cinema to this television executive, and generally the TV industry at large, is fiction. Who can blame them? Cinema as we know it appears as obvious as the air we breath. It is a fictionalisation of events and the closest it might ever come to any form of factual truth telling is in its composite of embellished truths, the remaking of a story caveated with the words “based on a true story”.
But that isn’t cinema, a vast plain, with no essence. And whilst we can stand on the tip of a pin and argue the toss, it’s what cinema can do for journalism now that’s deeply relevant. In an age of masked truths, everyone-is-a-shooter, lies and journalism’s confinement to literals, if there was ever a time for the power and influence of cinema to resurface, it’s now.
Historically cinema was a coming together of multimedia elements, sound, images and texts conceived as an art form in 1916 by Italian futurists. As the equivalent of today’s millennials creating social media, this youthful movement was both artistic and socially driven. It looked at the world through a new prism of optimism infecting art and architecture, but the moving image was its sine qua non.
Its impact would be infectious across the globe and by the second decade of the 20th century, a new breed of entrepreneurs realised how they could tell fictional stories with this new set of tools. Figures like Aleksandr Dovzhenko , a Russian cinema maker typified the bifurcation, as leading pioneers like Dziga Vertov raged against the fictional route cinema was taking. Fictional cinema with its elaborate sets, costumes,actors and studios sealed the fate of factual cinema which would defacto be subsumed into a new form called documentary under the wily Scot John Grierson.
Then in the 1960s there was a second coming. Cinema as a form to be reckoned with resurfaced. Under pioneers such as Robert Drew and the Frenchman Jean Rouch Cinéma vérité arrived. Different animals but the same beast, the idea was to use the richness of cinema’s moving image realism palette to tell cinema truths at a time when television was on the up, but was also creating a system that would bedevil it in the 21st century.
Television news, through the work of pioneers at CBS, NBC, the BBC and later on ITV had devised a neat formula for telling stories with a framework whose lay out was its brilliance and later to a new breed of politicians and spin doctors its soft exposed under belly.
Robert Drew who did much to re-engineer the craft of journalism filmmaking despaired. The new news industry conveniently took his redesigned equipment in which he pioneered handheld cameras with sound and pictures being recorded together, but they were non-plussed at the new storytelling philosophy.
Significantly in the 1960s, journalism would create a parallel faux pas in relinquishing cinema studies to literary departments. Television journalism was about the literal, the explicit. There was no room for interpretation that looked under the bonnet of the story for what might be happening — the implicit.
When one of the BBC’s most respected journalists, the Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen spoke about the fight he undertook with his bosses to include on-the-spot analysis in his stories, he’s confirming this line of thought of WYSIWYG.
Think of how a fictional cinema director might tackle the Trump Caravan story.
A shot of the border, dust bowls and army personnel milling around.
Same shot of the border. More dust bowls. Army personnel keeping themselves active playing football or otherwise.
Same shot of the border. A lithe figure, long distance runner appears at one of the crossings. Who is she? She’s from the Tarahumar tribe — known for its long distance running.
We then tell the back story. How the day Trump announced the Caravan, the director hired a Tarahumar runner as part of the human convoy to start running towards the US. Using a drone we see her coordinates over the days and that of the convoy which is still many days away if indeed it continues.
The video link is announced by a journalist at a WH press gathering. The caravan didn’t arrive before the midterms. Here’s how much it costs, cut to a truck with millions of bank notes, which could have done the following…
The visual schema and narrative is compelling. Yet this creative way of thinking how to illustrate a story isn’t confined to cinema directors. In the 1990s, and as a thread into mid 2000s cinema as a direct adjunct to journalism (videojournalism) would arrive. It was the photojournalist with moving camera — cinematic with the cinema philosophy. Stories could be distilled as allegorical, symbolic, and implicit. It’s not necessarily what you’re seeing, but the underlying message that should bother you.
As Aaron Gell writes about Seth Abramson’s meta narratives around Trump.
as a whole, the media hasn’t quite risen to the occasion. Day after day, they reach for an obsolete playbook: chasing scooplets then failing to contextualize them,
Meta narratives framed within the post post-modernism of story forms is experimental filmmaking, as essay, come good i.e.cinema par excellence. This includes Adam Westbrook part of the team behind the NYT’s “Operation Infektion”, which BBC World Service called “an enthralling history of fake news — with testimony from former Russian spies and US officials”.
Westbrook was an early disruptor in multimedia and film in 2007 when the landscape was fertile and we were experimenting with forms.
Syrian self-taught citizen journalist Waad al-Kateab films for Channel 4 is typical of meta narratives. A new born baby struggling for life comes to symbolise Syria.
And there are many others. Unconstrained and unimpeded by television’s rules, they tell stories. In 2015, following extensive research and building on the work of Robert Drew, whom I would speak to (see below) we would call this new breed of journalists, artistic videojournalists or cinema journalists.
Unlike television news journalism there is no one style. Cinema journalism relies on cultural and literary values, infused with behavior and psychological theories to tell its stories. Tech is an enabler, as in the use of mobile phones, drones and various lenses and light to address different scenes where the film requires.
It could tell Hart’s story today in a way as to steal a march on fictional filmmaking. More poignantly, it opens up a way to tell deeply immersive stories about the psychology of the present discourse of an expanding unseemly politics, which day-in-day-out dominates US reportage, and thus far normative reportage reveals few answers to tackle this.
The author Dr David Dunkley Gyimah’s work has been cited in a number of academic and industry books. David was one of the first videojournalists in the UK in the 1990s and is an international winner of several awards, including the Knight Batten for Innovation in Journalism. He’s one of Medium’s top writers in jouurnalism. You can find out more about him here