Penny Lane is the documentary filmmaker behind NUTS!, the mostly-true story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric snake oil salesman who built an empire in Depression-era America with a goat testicle impotence cure. The film received a TFI Documentary Fund grant in 2014, traveled the global festival circuit, and has since opened in theatres to critical acclaim.
While doing the press rounds for NUTS! Penny was open about how she lies to the audience in the film. Now she’s taking transparency to a whole new level with Notes on NUTS!, a brand-new kind of documentary film appendix divulging what in NUTS! is ‘true’ and what isn’t and – to what degree. This notes project is tied to the digital release of the film, and as of September 6th NUTS! is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo On-Demand, Vudu and BitTorrent.
Below Penny explores the importance of trust in documentary filmmaking and how transparency might play a key role in establishing greater trust between a storyteller and his/her audience.
Q: Why is it important for nonfiction makers to be transparent?
Trust is paramount in nonfiction storytelling. Your audience needs to trust that you’re honoring what I call “the documentary promise” – the promise to in some essential way tell the truth – and so does your subject. That trust is what gives nonfiction its special power. Violating it is tricky business. (Trust me: I know from experience!)
I would never make prescriptions – or proscriptions, for that matter – intended to apply to all documentary filmmakers. The dizzying variety of ways that filmmakers negotiate the ethical, epistemological and practical complexities of the documentary promise is precisely what makes the field so exciting.
That being said, it seems to me that transparency can, in some instances, be a helpful way to build trust with subjects and audiences.
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I mean. In written journalism, edit points in a direct quote must be indicated by an ellipsis. In film and radio, no such rule exists. In fact, the opposite rule is applied: the jump cut resulting from such an edit is generally frowned upon and so covered up as best as possible. Unless you are Errol Morris, which makes me wonder if maybe that is what Morris wanted with his jump cuts: could it be seen as an ethical choice as well as an aesthetic one? What would happen if it were a community standard in documentary film that we had to release all our raw interviews as well as the edited ones?
That last idea is only (a radical!) application of my idea that “footnoting” our films would open up into all sorts of similar possibilities for transparency.
Q: What initiated your desire to be as transparent as possible with your work?
NUTS! is a weird documentary. Because I wanted the film to formally mirror its subject (a con man), and because a great con is all about telling a great story with no regard whatsoever for the truth, I did things to further that goal that typically I would never do. You could argue that I violated the documentary promise. In short: I lied, and more than is usual – or so I should hope! – for a documentary filmmaker.
NOTES ON NUTS! takes the provocation of the film much further by engaging in a kind of radical honesty about all of the tricks, manipulations and outright lies to be found in my film, with the idea that in doing so I could expand out from this one (admittedly really strange!) case study to instigate a whole new conversation: what would happen in documentary filmmakers starting to regularly use footnotes?
In the end, the film tells you I lied. So you could also argue I am off the hook, as far as trust goes. But I still felt uncomfortable saying, “Hey viewer, there are some lies in this film,” without going into much more detail than I could within the confines of a fun, fast-paced 79-minute movie.
So that’s where the idea to footnote it came from… an idea that turned out to be more way complicated than I initially imagined. It’s so complicated that I’m not even sure if I achieved my goals when I actually wrote them. And let me tell you… they took a really long time to write. It was kind of a nightmare. (I need to offer here a shout-out to Caitlin Mae Burke, who did heroic work in helping me “fact check” my own film, and another shout-out to Dave Merson-Hess, who worked tirelessly and with an open mind with me on how to format and build the database. I would have definitely given up this crazy idea without their support.)
Q: How can you effectively protect the integrity of a documentary film when the people working on it are inherently biased in one way or another?
I find it intellectually exciting to ask: should filmmakers use footnotes, and if so, in what form and toward what end? Why might filmmakers want or not want to use footnotes, and how would such annotations change the way audiences understand and respond to documentaries? My hope is that it will inspire other filmmakers to similar action, and then we can assess in a few years whether or not annotation has allowed us to make any interesting headway in the frankly tired “art vs. journalism” debate, or whether all we’ve done is made it all much more hopelessly confusing. Either one would be fine by me.
I do know that the footnote alone will not solve every problem. Nonfiction writers have had the option or requirement of footnotes for hundreds of years; it’s not as if bad behavior by writers has been magically stamped out. And lest we forget: the vast majority of the human experience – precisely the thing that nonfiction seeks most to represent – is unverified and unverifiable. It’s based on impressions, memories, beliefs, opinions, anecdotes and the stories we tell in order to make sense of our lives.
At best, footnotes provide the audience with two things: first, an opportunity to evaluate whether the filmmaker has done an acceptable amount of work to honor the documentary promise; and second, a list of citations for the things that are verifiable (i.e., statistics, archival images, etc.).
Again, it all comes down to trust. We decide whether we trust the storyteller and the story they’re telling based on the evidence we have. Footnotes are just one more kind of evidence we might offer. Why not give it a shot?