There is a long-running debate within film theory and criticism about the idea of authenticity. Art as a form of expression has social and political consequences, whether these are intentional or not; therefore, whatever the genre, authenticity is essential to maintain. Films based on real tragedies portray a real person’s story, and often one must look past entertainment value and focus on why a story is being told. Much film criticism has been arguing in favour of authentic representation in recent years.
The upcoming release of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody presents the life of the late Freddie Mercury. His musical genius propelled the success of Queen, but Mercury’s story ended far too soon as a result of health complications relating to AIDS. Although Bohemian Rhapsody is not centred specifically around the AIDS crisis, it is obviously critical to address such a prevalent aspect of Freddie Mercury’s story. The negative societal attitudes surrounding the illness had disastrous consequences for the sufferers and their families. This tragic event should never be forgotten because it still exists as a lived experience today. It will be particularly interesting to note how Singer tackles Mercury’s death within the wider context of HIV and AIDS.
True crime documentaries such as Making a Murderer prove extremely popular with viewers, with Netflix signing off on a second season shortly after the season one premiere. Ten episodes of season one tell the convoluted story of young Teresa Halbach, who was hired to photograph a car, only to end up tragically murdered. The show was criticised heavily for being too biased towards its title character, Steven Avery. The creators allegedly missed out pieces of evidence heard in court that implicated Avery, leading viewers to believe that he was innocent.
One of the best aspects of making a documentary is the way that directors and presenters become journalists. They venture out into the unknown, and submerge themselves into the world of the topic they are exploring. Occasionally, this means that the creator gets too close to the subject, and, intentionally or not, becomes biased. However, this relationship between filmmaker and subject creates a rawness that is vital for establishing a connection with the viewer. The more authentic the series, the more engaged the viewer. It is a formula that is proving unflappable for serialised television programmes, but is it working for film?
Converting a lived experience into a fictionalised art form is a monumental task that comes with an immense responsibility. This responsibility increases substantially when creating a film about tragedies or upsetting events.
Films detailing true stories of murder, war, and death are emotional and affecting. Norwegian director Erik Poppe created a stir at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival with the premiere of his feature film U-July 22. The film is shot in real time in a single take, and retells the events of the mass murder at Utøya summer camp in 2011. It is a film made to capture the truth of the tragedy, not for the purpose of entertaining the audience. In scenes that are at times too horrifying to watch, a teenage girl runs for her life through a forest. The only sounds are gunshots and screams, with no music or soundtrack.
Poppe argues that “it felt urgent to bring the actual story back into the collective memory”, in response to criticism from viewers that felt the film was in bad taste. He also notes that the shooter, Anders Breivik, plays no active part in the film: it in no way sensationalises his actions. U-July 22 dramatically adjusts the narrative surrounding terrorism. Media and news outlets often dramatise terrorism by Islamic groups, while arguing that the trauma created by white far-right groups, such as the events at Utøya, are merely the work of a “lone wolf”. By bringing these types of tragedies into the international consciousness, it helps us make sense of an otherwise unknown and traumatic event.
On the opposite end of the true story controversy spectrum sits Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. As generations go by, the first-hand trauma of the World Wars are slipping away from living memory. World War II is embedded in the national consciousness in a way that is unique to the tragedy of war, and the Miracle of Dunkirk is regarded as a national triumph, something that should be celebrated. It is continually studied in schools across the world, and the population engage with historical texts to this day. This means that Nolan’s historically accurate – but at the same time wholly emotive and affecting – film is a phenomenal achievement, and one that was almost universally celebrated, without accusations of exploiting tragedy.
Artistic expression carries with it a unique responsibility. Real tragedies leave serious physical and mental consequences in their wake, sometimes affecting an entire nation. Suppressing artistic expression, whether in the form of a film or otherwise, can also have consequences that few consider. Sometimes films are made to make audiences uncomfortable, scared, sad, and horrified, because an emotive response is a powerful tool in processing trauma. In allowing a film to evoke these emotional responses, an event is captured and re-captured. This way, it allows us to make sense of things that otherwise do not make sense at all.