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TV and Movies

From the Oscars to Sundance, we're obsessed with true stories

Documentaries and fictionalised drama expose hard truths from the Oscars to Sundance.

Atsushi Nishijima

Keira Knightley is watching the build-up to the Iraq war on the news. Her husband isn't keen. "Can't we watch something else?" he asks.

That's a scene from the new movie Official Secrets, but it's probably a moment that's played out in your living room. World-changing events are often too big or too awful to comprehend as they unfold on the news, and all too often we end up just watching something else. But in our turbulent times, various new movies and documentaries confront those real events -- and dare us to look away.

The true story is a major trend in cinema. No less than five of this year's best picture Oscar nominees -- Bohemian Rhapsody, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Green Book and Vice -- are based on real people and events, including from very recent memory.

At January's Sundance Film Festival, such reality-inspired movies were everywhere -- to the point the festival featured not one but two films dramatising the exploits of real-life spy whistleblowers. The first is Official Secrets, in which Knightley plays real-life British intelligence officer Katherine Gun. The other, The Report, stars Adam Driver as Daniel J Jones, the man who compiled the dossier exposing CIA torture.

These films may be dramatisations, but they crackle with authenticity. "Fiction is my medium for telling the truth," Official Secrets director Gavin Hood told CNET at the film's Sundance premiere. "Fiction, or dramatising using actors, is a great way of searching for another truth."

Kiera Knightley tells the tale of real-life whistleblower Katherine Gun in Official Secrets.


Alongside these dramatisations were numerous straight-up documentaries tackling recent scandals. On the subject of technology, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley looks at the Theranos fraud, while The Great Hack delves into the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Silicon Valley and its technological off-shoots have an inordinate influence on our lives that's often invisible, so it's important to shine a light on it.

Meanwhile HBO's Leaving Neverland drew protest from Michael Jackson fans with its unflinching exploration of alleged sexual abuse by the pop superstar, while the searing Untouchable gave voice to the women accusing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Iraq, Theranos, Weinstein. We know these names and phrases from the headlines. But how many of us understand the full significance of even these recent stories? Films like Untouchable or The Report have the power to summarise complex situations, often with the perspective of a few years distance from the events.

Recounting a true story through a semi-fictionalised lens is a practise going back at least as far as Shakespeare's history plays, points out Alex von Tunzelmann, historian and author of the book Reel History. Telling the stories of historical figures as fiction can make them more relatable or make a point. "Fiction is important because it helps us understand deeper human truths than sometimes straightforward nonfiction can, whether history or current events," she explains. "If you just want the facts, there are plenty of excellent history books and documentaries you can reach for instead."

The Report, for example, is a stunningly clear-sighted exploration of a dauntingly complex story. It's dense with facts and details about government wrongdoing, but the movie's fictionalised format gives you something you wouldn't get even from the real Daniel Jones' actual 7,000-word report. Not only does the movie compress a huge amount of information about the CIA's ineffective torture program and the ensuing cover-up into an easily digestible and grippingly dramatic form, it also illustrates the wider context. The electrifying film depicts the wheels within wheels of government, shining a light on the connections between the CIA, the White House and politicians on both sides -- all of whom had their own agendas to serve.

Outrage crackles from the screen in The Report. The same is true of many of the documentaries and films confronting horrifying real events. But not all these true stories are so heavy. Some give an insight to uplifting and joyful true stories.

Wrestling comedy Fighting with My Family will clothesline you right in the feels.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Knock Down the House, for instance, is an up-to-the-minute documentary tracing the rise of a new generation of political candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Fighting With My Family is a surprisingly heartwarming rags-to-riches tale set in the knockabout world of professional wrestling. And Netflix's drama The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the directing debut for Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, tells the inspirational true story of a young boy in Malawi who invented an unconventional way to save his village from famine.

But in our turbulent times, films have a power to expose true stories with a directness that's often diffused when we're reading or hearing about dark stuff day-in and day-out. We might be guilty of tuning out the continual waves of awful news and revelations about, say, Weinstein. But when we look into the eyes of the women telling their stories in the documentary Untouchable, we understand the full weight of their ordeal.

Viewers looking for escapism might be tired of reality -- no wonder the choice at the box office is often between true stories at one extreme and ultra-fantasy like Marvel's Avengers at the other. Perhaps we're hitting peak true story -- it's certainly questionable whether we need to see chiselled heartthrob Zac Efron romanticising serial killer Ted Bundy, for example, in Sundance premiere Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Not every Sundance movie was a true story. Little Monsters, for example, is a delightful Shaun of the Dead-style zombie comedy, bringing some welcome lightness among the grave truth-telling.

Zom-com Little Monsters may be filled with blood and gore, but that was light relief at this year's Sundance.


Yet even Sundance's out-and-out fiction movies were often informed by reality. Amazon spent a reported $13 million buying Late Night, a Mindy Kaling comedy skewering the timely subject of women's representation in the media. The harrowing but utterly compelling Share, which will air on HBO, is a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about sexual abuse. Although it isn't based on a specific true story, it sums up many real-life incidents and the contemporary #metoo climate.

Using actors and dramatising the story is attractive because it allows us to explore the events we can't otherwise see. We don't have cameras inside the CIA or Britain's GCHQ, so The Report and Official Secrets use actors and imagined scenarios to show what happened. These films allow us to turn the tables on the government's operatives -- for once, it's us spying on them.

Actors Maynor Alvarado and Manuel Uriza recreate true events in drama/documentary hybrid The Infiltrators.


Another approach to telling a true story is to blend documentary with dramatised reconstruction. The Infiltrators won awards at Sundance with its hybrid approach, as part of the film is made up of real footage of activists campaigning against migrant detention and deportation in the US. Actors are then used to act out what happened inside a detention centre. This combination of footage and fiction is a novel approach that could be confusing as you have to remember two sets of faces and match them together. Fortunately directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra deftly manage the two different sides of the retelling.  

The problem with fictionalising true stories is we're left to wonder whether what we're watching actually happened or how much is artistic license. Compressing events and combining several real people into one fictional character makes events easier to understand and helps the audience understand the underlying themes, but for any film there's a line where "fictionalised" could become pure fiction. On that note, The Report has a surreal meta moment when the characters react with dismay at the depiction of torture in another real movie, 2012's contentious Zero Dark Thirty.

Still, as Alex von Tunzelmann pointed out in an article for the Guardian on the filmmaker's responsibility to verisimilitude, "Even the most inaccurate film can prompt questions, spark debate, sharpen our ability to assess and analyse".

There's a danger these questions, debates, assessments and analysis may come too late. Documentaries and films help us understand the major events of our time, but only after the fact -- we can't do anything about CIA torture or Weinstein now. Those things are history. But what we can do is get angry about what happened and work to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.

The Report, for example, draws a line between the use of torture under President George W Bush and the subsequent use of drone strikes under President Obama. The documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? focuses on Cohn, a political fixer infamous for his work with Joseph McCarthy but who later represented a young Donald Trump. These films make clear the past is intertwined with the present.

The line-up of reality-based Oscar nominees shows the true story is here to stay. Films and documentaries are doing more than ever to illuminate and explain world-changing events -- it's our responsibility as viewers not to look away.

Which may be the hardest truth of all.