Blurred Lines

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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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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