When You Make the Movie About You


Like most filmmakers who’ve seen it, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Jinx. I watched all six parts of the HBO series, and was, for the most part, duly riveted.

But since the airing of the final episode, there’s been a lot of discussion about it, mostly with regard to filmmaking ethics and timing. That started with the arrest of its subject, Robert Durst, by authorities in New Orleans the day before the final episode aired. The filmmakers claimed it was purely coincidental, but one couldn’t help but feel that everything seemed to come perfectly to a head all at once, both from a storytelling perspective and from a “How do we best generate a ratings extravaganza?” kind of perspective. There has been a lot of coverage in the New York Times, which interviewed Director Eugene Jarecki and Producer Marc Smerling as a follow-up that was printed the day after the episode aired, before the two declined to give more interviews that same day, saying that, because they would likely be witnesses in any case against Durst, that it “it is not appropriate for us to comment further on these pending matters.” I found Joe Berlinger’s comments discussion of how the pressures on documentary filmmakers today can affect ethical decisions insightful, and I also found thought this BFI piece made some interesting points about “where journalism ends and moviemaking begins” even while I largely didn’t agree with it (it’s just ridiculous to call The Jinx “terrible filmmaking,” and as someone who has actually never seen all of the footage from my last film, I think not reviewing all of the material you’ve recorded right away is about how you use limited time and resources, not being “sloppy”). But nobody has really mentioned one of the main problems I have with the film: that the filmmakers chose to make it, in the end, too much about themselves.

Let me back up a bit and say that filmmakers putting themselves in their own documentaries without good reason has long been a pet peeve of mine. For one thing, using putting yourself in the film as a character can be a crutch for how to tell a story you’re not sure how to tell. First person gives you a basic structure and style based around your voice and how events unfolded from your perspective, and it creates an instant connection between yourself, your film, and the audience. Why make your audience do any more intellectual work — figuring out the journey the film is taking or how to feel about it — than they have to, when handing them your point of view will easily tell them that right off the bat? Putting yourself in your own film is also at least somewhat narcissistic. You’re deciding that you are compelling and watchable (or listenable) enough to be the person that everyone wants to follow into the story – a much sought-after quality that has consecrated celebrities since, oh, film, theater, storytelling around the campfire, take your pick, began – regardless of whether you really have any connection to it or whether you’re even someone I’d like to hang out with for 60 to 120-odd minutes.

Now, putting yourself in the movie in the way I’m talking about is not the same as setting out to make a movie that tells your own story, or one in which you are a central character – in other words, a narrative that needs you. Plenty of people have stories to tell, and many of those are ones in which they are direct participants, and which are best told from their point of view. Ross McElwee, Macky Alston, Sarah Polley, these are all first-person filmmakers who I admire and who I think have made excellent work by seeing the interesting tales in their own lives and figuring out how to tell them.

It’s also not the same as casting yourself as the “host” of a film or tv show, as filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock do. When Moore was the narrator of Roger & Me, it was an organic choice because he was from Flint, Michigan and he was making a film about what was happening to his hometown. When Spurlock made Supersize Me, he used himself as the subject of the experiment that was at the center of the film — maybe a stunt, but again, an organic choice that works. In subsequent projects, however, both filmmakers have chosen to use their new status as media personalities as a tool to investigate topics that interest them, casting themselves, essentially, as the viewer’s surrogate. Since the success of their first films proved that they each had a unique perspective and personality to which people responded, that makes some sense — although it doesn’t necessarily help the topics on which they choose to focus. A large part of whether you’ll watch Michael Moore’s movies and give the issues in them a hearing ends up being about whether or not you like Michael Moore, regardless of how you feel about those issues. Since Moore has gotten more people to see his documentaries than most of his contemporaries combined, I’d say this tactic has largely worked out for him. Post-Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, however, I seriously doubt people on the right are going to give any cause Moore takes on a fair shake, and critics and commentators on his films spend as much time complaining about or lauding his obstinate voice as they do discussing the subjects his films cover. This is the biggest risk of making yourself the visible “host” of the journey that takes place in a documentary film: people can choose to avoid your film, and the issues it covers, if they don’t want to spend time with you.

What I’m really talking about, however, are the endless variations on these two options, in which people insert themselves in some way into films that aren’t about them or clearly following them. We hear Rachel Boynton’s voice asking interview questions in Our Brand is Crisis because…why, exactly? She could have cut it out like every other filmmaker does — but whatever, it takes me out of the film a bit but overall it’s not very intrusive, since we only hear it a handful of times throughout. Then there’s Davis Guggenheim, who makes himself the occasionally-appearing narrator of Waiting For Superman, despite the fact that, as he admits early in the film, his own children are in private school (and, uh, he’s a Guggenheim, so we can be fairly sure he himself didn’t go to public school), and his connection to public schools basically consists of driving past them — which is just as both boring and elitist as it sounds when we see him do in the film. Again, I ask, because why?? Why would I want to follow this guy through this world? It not only doesn’t draw me into the film, it takes me out of it. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Laura Poitras’ presence in Citizen Four, a presence which, to me, seems not only earned, but necessary. Poitras was contacted by Edward Snowden, and she was contacted by him for reasons that seem important to disclose and that tell us a lot about both her and Snowden, and which underlie the film and its very existence. And while Poitras includes their email correspondence, and her own voice reading it, as well as glimpses of herself setting up the camera and bits of her voice interacting with Snowden, she keeps herself in the background, almost like a framing device. I guess it could be because she’s camera-shy, but to me, it seems more clearly that it’s because she doesn’t want to take anything away from the people who the film is really about: Snowden and the other political activists who choose to speak out against government surveillance. Poitras is only in the film because it seems like the most honest way to tell their story. She doesn’t want to dilute the film’s focus by making it, in essence, My Encounter with Edward Snowden — as I could very easily see a lesser filmmaker doing.

The far end of the spectrum, to me, of putting-yourself-in-the-story storytelling is reality TV — which I think both spawned this trend and further warped it into an even scarier trend: story-generating. In reality TV, everyone is a character fighting for screen time in order to make the show their own. If the real story is not about them, they find a way to make it about them, and if there is not enough drama in their own story, they manufacture it. If it wasn’t from the beginning (and I don’t think it was in the first Real Worlds and Big Brothers, I think it evolved), this is now the central ethos of pretty much all reality television, from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to The Real Housewives series to even the competition shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, which, despite the fact that they have drama built into their premises as competitions (which they already inflate to an absurd degree), seem to feel the need to manufacture more drama out of soap opera-y personal conflicts and catfights (“All Stars” versions of these shows seem to be most prone to this, because they tend to deliberately bring back characters who were the most “interesting,” aka likely to scream/cry/make trouble). Not only that, but this way of “telling” stories by creating them has come to seem completely normal and natural. It’s YouTube, it’s Vine, it’s Meerkat and Periscope, and it’s becoming what we expect in our news (in featuring our newscasters more and more as personalities, or interviews with people “on the scene” of a news event who might have a tenuous connection to those events at best, but who are encouraged to make themselves part of the story) and our documentary. It’s starting to feel like everything in media is supposed to be one big selfie.

Now The Jinx, in the first five episodes, is clearly about Durst, his twisted story, and the people around him who’ve been affected by it. Whatever else he may be, he is a fascinating character, one supremely messed-up dude regardless of whether or not he’s a murderer. He tells us forthrightly about the terrible events in his life — witnessing his mother’s suicide (or at least its preamble and aftermath); his cold relationship with his father and brothers, including being passed over to run his father’s multi-billion-dollar company; the violent and abusive fights he had with his wife, Kathleen Durst and her mysterious disappearance; the death of his good friend Susan Berman; and the killing of his supposed friend Morris Black, for which he was acquitted of murder, but who he admits to dismembering. He does so with virtually no affect, with the only emotion displayed perhaps annoyance at having to spell out his own actions, thoughts and feelings, that he thinks should be obvious. He comes across as frank and straightforward, but also kind of psychopathic, because it’s like he’s describing things that happened to someone else. And the story that Jarecki builds around this, through other interviews and stylized re-enactments to illustrate how events may have transpired — in a dreamlike way that allows you to keep them separate from reality — is terrific. The style borrows heavily from Errol Morris, as Jarecki admitted in interviews, but it works. And there are so many interesting characters — Durst’s family; the family and friends of Kathleen Durst, several of whom are convinced that Durst is her murderer and become at times almost obsessed with trying to prove it; the family and friends of Susan Berman, including her stepson, who was very close to her but remains close to Durst and has been supported by him financially; and the jurors, judge and lawyers from Durst’s trail — all of whom have great things to say, allowing us to see the story from an incredible multiplicity of angles. When I started The Jinx, I wasn’t sure how this one man’s story had earned a mini-series. At episode five, I was enthralled and couldn’t see it being any shorter.

As you might have guessed, the one choice I didn’t particularly like was Jarecki’s physical presence in the film. There was no question that Jarecki had to be part of the story. Durst had reached out to him personally after he directed a fiction film about Durst, All Good Things. Not only was that the genesis of the documentary, but it says a lot about what this central interview is: Durst’s opportunity to tell his side of things for the first time, to someone who he felt would be sympathetic or at least have some understanding of him as a person. Knowing this also enables us to somewhat put ourselves in Jarecki’s shoes, as the fascinated observer who spends a lot of time talking to this enigmatic potential horror show of a human being, who…confides in him? Lies to him? Manipulates him? You get to judge for yourself, and think about what it might have been like had Durst reached out to you. And yet, I wasn’t sure why we were seeing Jarecki — interviewing Durst, or walking with him on the street in b-roll, sometimes with a camera. We know that Jarecki is there as the director, but it’s a very distinctive choice to be physically present in the film, nodding and listening or asking questions — questions that, again, we generally don’t hear in documentaries, because we usually only hear the subjects giving their answers, keeping the focus on them. I think such a choice, because it is not the norm, and because, as such, it has the potential to take us out of the film and take our attention away from the main subject, has to really be both necessary and earned in the same way that all choices in the making of a documentary film should be necessary and earned: because they are integral to the story being told. So if Jarecki was visually in The Jinx, I didn’t necessarily think this was the wrong choice, but I wanted there to be a good reason.

Well, the reason came out in Episode Six, in which The Jinx in essence turns into, My Encounter With Bob Durst, And What I Did To Get the Gotcha Moment. In Episode Five, we find out that Susan Berman’s stepson, Sareb Kauffman, has gone through her things and found some damning evidence: a letter that Durst wrote to her, enclosing a $50K check (which may have kind of been hush money to keep her from telling what she knew, as his close friend and spokesperson, about Kathleen Durst’s murder). The envelope is addressed to her and spells “Beverly Hills” as “Beverley,” a misspelling of the name of the town that matches the misspelling on an anonymous postcard sent to police, which led them to find her body after the murder. Not only that, but the block-written, all-caps handwriting on the two missives looks identical. At the end of Episode Five, Jarecki is in possession of the letter, and we hear him say, “I’d like to take a month…Nothing’s bringing Susan back” – in essence, conspiring to withhold evidence from the police until they’re able to have their final interview with Durst and show him the letter themselves. So now, in Episode Six, we’re no longer watching that gripping documentary series about who Durst is and did he do it, because we now are pretty sure he did it. Instead, we’re in a reality TV show about Andrew Jarecki, trying to milk as much drama as possible out of 40 minutes of television that basically only exists to get us to Durst’s final interview and its postscript at the very end, where Durst says some damning things, possibly even admitting his guilt, while talking to himself in the bathroom.

In my mind, that story, the drama of Jarecki’s dilemma, was the wrong story to tell, and I think it’s hard to separate the other wrong choices that were made, both ethical and artistic, from the choice to make The Jinx into that. I mean, I’m a filmmaker, so the ethical and creative choices of documentary filmmaking are very interesting to me. But I’d tuned in to watch a series about murderer deciding to kill three people and lie about it, how he became who he was, and how he got away with the crimes. As difficult as the filmmakers’ decisions might have been, did they think that their discussions about how long to withhold evidence — a discussion that I don’t think should really have been a discussion at all since that evidence clearly convinced them that they were talking about a three-time murderer who was still at large (and it’s being speculated that they may have withheld that evidence, allowing him to stay at large, for as long as two to three years) — or frustrations of trying to get a final interview with Durst really compared with the drama of Durst’s story that they’d been telling for five episodes already? Did they really think it belonged in the same league, the same movie? Was holding up Jarecki’s anguished “desire for justice” next to that of Kathleen Durst’s friends and family really even appropriate? To me the answer is clearly “no,” but it seems that their desire to legitimize this new storyline, to beef up the drama to take it to that level, led them further into bad choices. First, it led them to withhold evidence. Second, they messed with the timeline of events, making it look like Durst’s final interview only happened after he was arrested for stalking his own brother, which made him come to Jarecki for help him in that case — which actually happened two years after the final interview. Why? Because it builds suspense as we see the filmmakers close in on “getting” Durst, and it also conveniently collapses time, so that it seems like Jarecki didn’t withhold the evidence from the police for very long. And third, a purely filmmaking crime: they made the series an episode longer than it needed to be and dragged out the ending.

Not only do I believe, as I said, that the ethical questions of filmmakers and the choices they make are interesting, but I think that the world should know about them. It’s educational for all consumers of media — which is basically nearly everybody on the planet at this point — to know and think about how the sausage is made, especially now that everyone can start making their own sausage, because everyone has a camera. I think the sooner that we realize that all of the media we consume is manipulated and constructed, the better it will be for the world. Nobody will ever again confuse Fox News with fact, or CNN for that matter. Just because one is motivated to manipulate by ideology and one is motivated by money doesn’t mean either is more manipulative or more likely to skew than the other. Money as an influence on media can be just as poisonous as any dogma.

Speaking of which, we have to ask, what role did HBO play? Six-part documentary mini-series don’t just happen without funding and a broadcaster, so somebody at HBO decided to finance this project and at least approved the film in this form. And I know, based on stories from other filmmakers, that HBO gets involved creatively when they think it’s necessary. I went to a film festival in the early aughts where I saw a documentary that had been picked up for broadcast by HBO. It was a good film, but something that didn’t jibe with me — yes, again. I told you it was a pet peeve — was the first-person narration by the filmmaker of a story that didn’t really involve him. (It was about someone who’d gone to his high school, but who he had never met until he decided to make the film). I asked the filmmaker during the Q&A why he’d made the choice to tell the story that way, and he replied that, when he was looking for finishing funds, he’d showed something to HBO that didn’t have that first-person point of view. And the people at HBO had said, essentially, We’d be interested in your film if you put yourself in there. It wasn’t a demand or a requirement, but…basically, yeah, it was, if he wanted HBO to consider funding the film. It’s no secret that this the type of negotiation over the shape of the final product goes on between filmmakers and the people who fund and distribute their work, but I’m not sure people realize, since they assume documentaries are “factual,” that it happens in documentary. When there’s money involved, the people with the money often want to have a say — as we even saw recently with PBS and its decision not to fund the completion of, or broadcast, the documentary “Citizen Koch.” And that’s especially true when they stand to gain financially from the film’s success. So, I’m not saying HBO convinced Jarecki and Smerling to withhold evidence, or convinced them to make specific changes to the film, but I absolutely believe that they influenced the decisions that went into making the final episode the way it was. To me, it was such a milk-the-drama, pander-to-the-obvious, reality TV-type move, exactly the kind of idea that some executive who cares more about ratings than about anything else would come up with.

Because, as necessary as I think it is to make audiences aware of the process and raise all of these questions, the finale of The Jinx should not have been about that. Jarecki and Smerling have absolutely done something heroic by doggedly pursuing this story until they found the truth. Like many great filmmakers before them, including Morris and Berlinger (and his directing partner Bruce Sinofsky who recently passed away), their work has put pressure on the legal system and seems to be pushing justice forward. But the fact that their desire to win at television got in the way of their desire to see justice done, and might even have caused more harm had Durst killed again (and we’re assuming he didn’t, but now that another potential murder he may have committed in 1971 has come to light, who knows what bodies might be buried out there?), is hard to overlook. And it didn’t even make the series better, it made it worse.

Filmmakers are human beings who get to play God. We get to determine what stories are told and how they’re told. That’s a lot of power and responsibility. We have to make calls all the time about what the right thing is to do, often on the fly, often under the duress of many competing pressures — ethical, financial, personal. When we become part of the stories we’re trying to tell, that makes it all that much more complicated. That may be still the right decision, the inevitable decision, the only decision, but it has to be integral to doing justice to your topic and making the best film you can. Contrary to what the industry may tell us, that does not just mean the one that everyone else is making or the one that gets the most eyeballs. Call me naive, but I think one of the great things about documentary filmmaking is that making a really good, truthful film and doing the right thing generally line up. That only happens, however, when we’re brutally honest with ourselves about what our own role is and what it should be, and how that’s influencing our choices every step of the way.

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