Amir Bar-Lev is familiar with the observer effect, a concept in physics that states that just by observing something, you are affecting it.
A documentary filmmaker and curator of the Stories About Stories thematic sidebar at this years Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Bar-Lev understands that the observer effect is at work while shooting docs, but the fact that we affect everything we are trying to document doesnt mean that what is captured is untrue. Some of the most truthful storytelling is the storytelling that acknowledges the effect we have on what we are trying to capture.
Thats sort of the point of Stories About Stories, which features a series of films that, says Bar-Lev, in their storytelling, they examine storytelling itself. Documentary is a complex medium that combines journalism and art, and sometimes in a problematic way. And it bears some scrutiny by its own practitioners.
Take, for example, Nick Broomfields Driving Me Crazy, one of the films in the sidebar. Its a film about what Nick does when the film hes trying to make (about the making of a glitzy musical) blows up in his face, says Bar-Lev. And I was excited about the idea that you can find story even when the story youre expecting doesnt come to fruition. It felt like a metaphor for life.
Bar-Lev is familiar with the truth may not be what it seems concept from his own work. His film The Tillman Story documented how the death of former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman was not caused by enemy fire, as first reported, but actually the result of friendly fire. And his My Kid Could Paint That, which is in the festival sidebar, is about a young girl acclaimed as an artist who becomes embroiled in controversy when it appears her work might have been completed with her parents assistance.
Im not interested in stories with very clear white hats and black hats, says Bar-Lev. Those stories just reassure me my values are all in place. Im interested in stories that provoke thorny questions, and cause me to evaluate and poke and prod at my belief system. Thats what good documentary filmmaking does.
And thats a good reason why Bar-Levs next film, Happy Valley, is about the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal. But its not that Bar-Lev is particularly interested in Sandusky.
Im more interested in how we relate to Jerry Sandusky, the mythological nature of Sandusky and (former Penn State football coach) Joe Paterno, he says. We call the film Happy Valley because were interested in how the town is reckoning with itself in the aftermath of the scandal.
That movie is still in the production stage. In the meantime, Bar-Lev is more than happy to be returning to Full Frame, where a film he co-produced, Trouble the Water, won the 2008 Grand Jury Award. At the festival, he says, you are immersed in the different approaches filmmakers take in this medium. The differences in approaches, even more than the subject matter, are what I find inspiring in Full Frame.