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5 Controversial Documentaries That Blurred the Line Between Fact and Fiction

Nanook of the North

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When we sit down to watch a documentary film, we enter into a social contract with the moviemakers: what they’re about to show us is true, to the best of their abilities. But movies and the truth have a very wobbly relationship, and when it comes to a good story things are likely to get embellished.

While some documentarians are strict with their commitment to truth, others cut corners to produce the tale they want to tell. Before you watch Thursday’s all-new Documentary Now!, check out five documentaries that played fast and loose with the facts and got busted doing it.

5. Winged Migration

This gorgeous nature documentary, directed by Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin, purported to show the incredible feats performed by birds as they navigated the globe. Filmed on seven continents over four years with airborne cameras, it’s an incredible technical feat. Unfortunately, the narrative the French filmmakers weave with their footage is a bit misleading.

You see, you’re not actually watching wild birds migrate when you watch Winged Migration. A solid chunk of that aerial footage is of tame birds raised from birth by the directors around cameras and other film equipment so they would act “naturally” around it.


4. Roger & Me

Michael Moore is a polarizing figure in the world of documentaries, bringing his personal politics into everything he shoots. But his first feature, 1989’s Roger & Me, was his most personal. Examining the effects of General Motors abandoning the manufacturing town of Flint, Michigan, it painted a dismal picture of big business acting at the expense of the people it employs.

Still, critics quibbled with the way Moore depicted GM’s actions in Flint. News reports were edited to imply that GM had abandoned the town, but they continued producing cars and parts there decades after Roger & Me was filmed. One of the interviewees, attorney Larry Stecco, even successfully sued Moore and Warner Brothers for depicting him in a false light as a moneyed snob when he was actually a tireless advocate for Flint’s underclass.


3. Searching For Sugar Man

The story in Mark Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary is such a good one — a little-known Detroit singer-songwriter is rediscovered after half a century and finds out that he was a pop culture icon in South Africa — that it’s almost a shame to debunk it here. In the flick, Sixto Rodriguez is portrayed as having disappeared after the release of his second album in 1971 and eventually found living in obscurity in Detroit.

That’s not actually what happened, though. Rodriguez went on to tour internationally in the late 1970s and 1980s, most notably very well-received gigs in Australia. The film spends lots of time wondering if he died and recounting urban legends about his demise, but it’s plainly obvious that he was still around, with well-publicized gigs in Australia in 2007 and 2010. (He even had a song in the 2006 Heath Ledger film Candy.) But the film’s look at Sixto’s popularity in Africa and his sudden career resurgence is fascinating.


2. White Wilderness

One of the most notorious nature documentaries of all time, Disney’s 1958 White Wilderness purported to be a first-of-its-kind look at the animal life of Canada’s rugged north country. The movie was a huge hit and even took home an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Unfortunately, one of the movie’s most notorious scene was revealed to be completely fabricated.

In the film, we see a huge group of lemmings, cute brown rodent-like animals, supposedly attempting to migrate by jumping off of a cliff into the Arctic Ocean to their watery deaths. Only one problem: the critters are plunging into the Bow River near Calgary, and they’re not jumping — they’re being pushed by a rotating platform created by the film crew. A 1982 CBS News investigation uncovered the truth, and revealed that several other scenes in the movie were filmed in a studio.


1. Nanook Of The North

One of the most well-known documentaries of all time, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 ethnography took viewers up to northern Quebec to experience the life of a fur trader named Nanook and his family in the inhospitable frozen wastes. The film was a tremendous success and it inspired a wave of imitators.

Only one problem: Flaherty staged a whole bunch of it. Nanook wasn’t named Nanook but actually Allakariallak, the woman claimed to be his wife wasn’t, and by the time it was filmed the Inuit had moved past spear hunting and began using guns. Several scenes, including one where Nanook is perplexed by a phonograph record and bites it, were completely scripted.

Check out a clip from Documentary Now!‘s take on Nanook of the North below

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.