For many years, we attended Doc Soup at the Bloor cinema and every year there was a variety of documentary films: few spectacular, but usually a few that stuck in our minds ( See Alive Inside from an earlier blog). It’s an evening for us, although 9:15 showings can be hard in keeping your eyes open after a full day at work. Part of the deal is that you get 10 Hot Doc tickets and almost always, these films bring information into your life that you may not have been aware of. I ‘ve seen Paul Giamatti in John Adams TV mini series (2008) that provided me with fresh insight into American politics. And Amistad, Stephen Spielberg’s commercial film also visually crystalized slavery situations in new and profoundly unique ways: clothing words in unforgettable visual ways that mere words alone could not express.
Unlike the big films produced at huge cost, the Doc Soup documentaries are smaller kicks at the can we call life, aimed at a different market at a lower cost. They often take issues that the public may or not know about and go behind the scenes: to expose through interview, photo montage, discarded footage, or resurrected bits of information with an intent to sift more closely and get at the true meaning of an event: a kind of deeper disclosure, for the interest is less in costume, froth and spectacle, but the quieter revelations that make us gasp and focus our intellect at the idea rather than the spectacle unfolding on the big screen ; and if well done, more intense.
Last night ( April 23, 2014 ), we watched one on Pamela Smart. You may recall, particularly if you are a boomer, that she was the young, attractive teacher who apparently persuaded her students to kill her husband. The filmmaker takes several turns at his topic, perhaps complicating and making less effective a film because he loses focus on the central purpose of his story: is it the art of distortion that includes the media into a trial and how that presence can effect the proceedings? Or is it the truth of Smart’s claim that she did not commit the crime? The film maker himself when asked the question at the end of the night revealed, he is not interested in the answer to the latter- of her innocence- but rather the grey areas. With this conjecture, I agree.
For me, although my friends attending felt the film wobbled after the first engaging hour, I was intrigued by the exploration of how technology distorts, and in the case of this trial, it was the very first to be televised, before reality tv grabbed us by the eyeballs.
I liked how the filmmaker took Heisenberg’s theory that we are changed by being watched. That even our molecules respond to voyeurism: a quasi- scientific approach that linked the brilliant astrophysicist’s insights to the events of every day, finding commonalities between the disparate: two very diverse ways of thinking about science in an everyday manner ( referred to in educational scholarly articles as “bridging”).
As well the power of first person narration where the presence of the author is recognized and accepted versus the so-called objective cool omniscient voice that pretends to be detached from its content recalled for me the discussion that was fought by journals. Most decried that first person narration openly demonstrated bias as opposed to the anonymous omniscient so-called scientific one, that only pretends it to be detached- which of course cannot be true.
That the camera makes us present ourselves differently, to pose, to do our hair, to speak in a more elevated or purposely conscious fashion is real. In the same way, every researcher knows that how one construes statistics, how trials are set up, what populations are included or rejected and a million other choices make a difference; these manipulations are all charged with prejudice, so insisting that a voice other than “I” is merely a joke belies that judgments have all ready been built in and therefore nothing is as it appears. Yet for years, and maybe even now, scholarly journals and articles would not accept the use of that particular persona.
Even in teaching essay writing for many years, we strove to make the subject appear fair, unconfused by the sentiments of the writer. We employed the 3rd person to portray the stance. I will always recall my doctoral defines when the examining team queried why I had used the particular pronoun “ she”, and a feminist professor intoned, “If she changes her pronoun from ‘she’ to ‘ he’, I am outta here.” That was 1996. For some reason, identifying myself as ‘she’, rather than ‘one’ or ‘he ’provided the male professors with a bad taste in their mouths, rendering perhaps my thesis less true?. I never even considered referring to myself as male, although we know the French when including males and females in the same phrase appropriate the male adjectives to identify the group.
In any case, the Pam Smart film triggered other thoughts. It suggested that whoever tells their story best will be successful, particularly in court. That she was composed, well made up, unflinching- sounds like Camus’ The Stranger- and his cool demeanor and lack of emotional response to his mother’s death. And that Smart was good looking all impacted on her verdict: all those externals that fight with how we behave, how society has groomed us regarding grieving :in wearing torn clothes, eyes downcast, reddened from crying deemed “normal”. Ironically when immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, should they have cast their eyes downward, authorities identified them as mad and returned them to their homelands from which they fled, or sent them on to mental hospitals! It appears appropriate behavior is subject to protocols of the observer in society.
Plus that the Smart case had all ready been tried in the public domain with Bill Spencer intoning on television on her guilt, and the lack of de-questering jurors contrived to her verdict which I cannot determine was true . However, sentencing her to a life of imprisonment when the young students who actually fired the guns were now free or will be off in several years feels unjust.
“Do you think Carla Homolka should be free too?, “my husband shot back.
Of course not, I thought.
But I was also mindful of how students can create fantasies, especially about their pretty teachers and more likely if they have actually had an affair with them, as did Smart in revenge to her husband’s admittance that he too had strayed. I thought of David Mamet’s plays where professors’ reputations have been ruined, and I remembered the boys at juivy in BA Shapero’s The Art Forger who lied about their involvement in drugs , lambasting the kind teacher who came to give them art classes. And I also recall teaching in Jane Finch corridor and my naive relationship with a student many nights after class who reported that I had known about drug deals in the school: which of course I did not!
People, kids in binds and tough spots lie; actually most people twist the truth a bit or a lot.
The camera prevaricates, not overtly and we forget that what we watch has been edited, composed, cranked out to suit the purpose of the maker: to entertain, to provoke, to make a point-unlikely to tell the truth, if in deed, there is one truth. As in journal and essay writing and film making, there are diverse views that complicate. Ironically the more one begins to believe their own narratives, the more the connections, the synapses harden into new truths so we commence to believe “facts” that were created in our heads, not in the external realities that have been experienced.
Was Smart guilty? Maybe so and justifiably, justice was done. The film raises many questions on the stories we tell, the stories we tell when someone is watching, and our stories that are told by others.