Confronting the Fact of Fiction and the Fiction of Fact

Mothers, a film by Milcho Manchevski - 9

Figure 1. still image from Milcho Manchevski, Mothers (2010)


A screenplay is more like a sonnet than a novel. Action on screen unfolds with visceral immediacy, but any story with sweep . . . can only be told with broad impressionistic strokes. The challenge is greater when trying to tell a true story.

~Mark Bowden, Zero Dark Thirty is Not Pro-Torture,” The Atlantic

There’s no such absolute, universal thing as Reality or Truth; there are only instances, effects, performances (in the widest sense) that strike us as such. A whole machinery of social persuasion, of contextual discourse, is needed to deliver us to these precisely coded moments, which are (as it turns out) pitifully time-bound . . .

~Adrian Martin, “Afterword: Truth Approaches, Reality Affects,” in Milcho Manchevski, Truth and Fiction: Notes on (Exceptional) Faith in Art

The Academy Awards ceremony is upon us any hour now, and The New York Times just this past Friday (22 Feb. 2013) has published an interesting “critics’ notebook” essay, by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, “Confronting the Fact of Fiction and the Fiction of Fact,” which looks at how certain recent Best Picture nominees — such as Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django — have “have been subjected to unusually insistent fact-checking from journalists, politicians and op-ed pontificators.” Further, Dargis and Scott write that,

Arguments over these movies raise familiar questions about art and its uses: Is art supposed to make us better people, give us moral instruction, work toward the social good or exist merely for our personal pleasure? Above all, does it have to be true? When it comes to this recent crop of historically informed movies, these eternal conundrums have been intensified by an acute contemporary anxiety about the truth that has less to do with how rightly or wrongly “Argo,” for instance, gets its facts than with the crumbling monopolies on the truth held by institutions like the government and the press. . . . These movies attest to the ascendance of what might be called a documentary ethos (all reality, all the time) that pervades in every corner of the culture — from “found footage” horror movies like the “Paranormal Activity” franchise to the variously artificial forms of reality television — and that has helped to further blur the already fuzzy line between fact and fiction.

“But where,” Dargis and Scott ask, “in a work of imagination drawn from real life, are we supposed to draw the line between acceptable invention and irresponsible fabrication?” Ultimately, they opt for the idea that we supposedly never want truth from art and fiction. But perhaps they are defining “truth” too narrowly, and isn’t the “line” they imagine impossible to draw, anyway, partly because that particular line (between so-called “acceptable invention” and “irresponsible fabrication,” between “close-enough-to-the-truth” and “harmful lies”) is never really objectively identifiable to begin with, and also because (perhaps) the location of “truth” in any artist’s work might have more to do with that artist’s (and also her audience’s) emotional relation to the work of art itself, as a work of art, out of which, not verifiable facts, but some sort of emotional understanding about reality (our lived experience, never fully comprehendable either “in the moment” or afterwards with so-called hindsight) arises?

While Dargis and Scott aver that the “truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not,” this somewhat belies the fact that many of us go to movies, sure, not for factual truths, but nevertheless we do want fictions that reveal something of the Real of the world, some aspect of experience that it is not possible to portray or depict as “this is what actually happened,” but rather requires art to partly delineate aspects of our world that are non-verbal, non-pictorial, non-representable, yet “true” nevertheless. Art, in other words, possesses it own truth (something that has been written about extensively by critics and scholars), but at the same time, it reveals something about the world, and our experiences in that world, that cannot be accessed in any other way. It moves very close to, even if it never fully captures, what Lacan called the Real (or, the Thing).

Indeed, this was the very argument made by the poet Sir Philip Sydney in 1595, in his “Defence of Poesie,” where he argued that, although poets were “counterfeiters,” their material was to be found within the range of the “zodiac” of Nature’s “wit,” albeit they brought forth images and things that were even better than what Nature herself could conceive — as if to say, the real world is the artist’s palette and everything “counterfeited” is already there; the artist is the undercover agent of reality, drawing relations between things always there but often hidden from plain sight, felt but not often seen, until the artist carries it into view. These conceits are therefore fantastical, yet also true, maybe sometimes even better than plain, everyday reality, because they show us what could be, if only we could see it better. Sidney was an optimist (and a moralist), of course: he believed art should inspire us to our better selves, and of course, we know it doesn’t always work this way. Hitler loved the opera, after all, and Pol Pot was educated in Paris. We can easily imagine a psychopath who enjoys visiting museums and reading novels (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?).

So, this is not to say there are never ethical pitfalls in art’s acts of representation (we can’t just keep saying, “it’s only art; I ain’t bovvered”) — art does not always “ennoble” the emotions, and there are many ways in which an artist might twist the so-called “truth of life” in order to incite our darker emotions, and for no purpose at all except to, let’s say, “fuck with us,” and even, “fuck with reality.” We might say an ethical artist is one who cares, at some level, about “reality, and is even trying to contribute something useful, and also beautiful, to that reality (here the recent public arguments over the depiction and possible valuations, both positive and negative, of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty become acute and require us to consider seriously the influence upon public opinion, and also upon history, of art’s representations).

This is precisely the subject to which Oscar-nominated film director Milcho Manckevski addresses himself in a small book published by punctum’s Dead Letter Office last spring, Truth and Fiction: Notes on (Exceptional) Faith in Art. Manchevski’s “letter” represents a set of reflections inspired by his making of the film Mothers (2010), which was partly inspired in turn by an article Manchevski read in The New York Times in 2008 about Vlado Taneski, a Macedonian journalist who, as Manchevski has written,

was a correspondent for two major Macedonian newspapers from a small town, Kičevo. Taneski had been covering the case of several missing women in the town. They were all elderly, some of them used to work as cleaning women, and they all lived in the same neighborhood. They could almost see each other’s houses from their windows. Taneski wrote that the retired women had all gone missing over a period of three years. Their bodies were later found in plastic bags, discarded in illegal dumps, after having been raped and strangled.

The truly shocking part of this story is that Taneski also turned out to the murderer of these women and, after being arrested, was found dead by drowning [apparently in a bucket of water] in his cell, a “suicide” or “murder” never solved. Manchevski decided to make a film structured as a triptych in which he would not try to get at the “facts” of this case, but rather would “ask questions about the nature of truth”:

In a structuralist manner, we are finally faced with considering the medium itself, the font the song is printed in, the texture of the canvas, the clash and marriage of the documentary and fictional approaches in one and the same piece.

So, Mothers is comprised of three unrelated stories — two of which are dramatic fictions and one a documentary. In the first story, two nine-year-old girls report a flasher to the police even though they never saw him. In the second story, three filmmakers meet the only residents of a deserted village — an elderly brother and sister who have not spoken to each other in 16 years. And in the third story, retired cleaning women are found raped and strangled in a small town. In a way, you could say that the fiction slowly turns into a documentary.

The film is intended to work like the triptychs you see in churches or museums, where the three paintings function as one unit and work and riff in relation to each other. The three paintings are complete on their own, but they really tell a story only when seen as a whole. When you put them side by side, their differences are emphasized, as are their similarities. We are asked to consider them in a new, more holistic light.

Manchevski offers many compelling ways of considering what we might glimpse (and feel) in this “more holistic light,” and he also argues that, “The more we learn about the truth, the less important the factual truth becomes, and the more important the emotional truth of a living person is. The facts are important, but in the end, the love and the suffering and what to do with them is more important than the facts.” And for Manchevski, as an artist-filmmaker, he wants his audience to “trust the plane of reality created by the work itself . . . [to] trust its inner logic and integrity,” and to “have faith in what happens while we give ourselves to this work of art.” Here, faith displaces truth, or reality, as the mode within which we experience a work of art in its own reality, which then also mirrors, or becomes, our reality, or at least an important part of its fabric. Art, as Cary Howie has argued, as a “mode of transport,” of transfiguration, where we become “provisional” as well as “provident” (Cary Howie, “Modes of Transport,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 2.3 [Fall/Winter 2011]: 329-338).

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