How well must a documentary filmmaker know his or her subject?

This question isn’t always asked, as it might be of a book biographer, but I couldn’t help myself when I began hearing news about Kevin Clash over the past couple of weeks. Clash, the creative genius behind the lovable Sesame Street puppet Elmo, resigned a few days ago after accusations he’d engaged in sexual conduct with minors. Clash has called the allegations “false and defamatory.”

At Doc Soup, we care about such things only because we care intensely about the craft of making documentaries. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, the wildly popular 2011 documentary, practically canonized Clash for his coming from modest means to being a puppet savant. But having heard unsubstantiated bits of catty gossip about Clash long ago, I watched Being Elmo with skepticism — well before the scandal broke — and I wondered at the time if the film had painted too rosy a portrait. What choices did Constance Marks, the director, make in creating that portrait? How well did she really know him?

I have no idea about the veracity of the allegations against Clash, or whether Marks knew anything about them. (I tried to get in touch with her to find out, but couldn’t get through, so I’d welcome her response to the questions…) It brings to mind The Kid Stays In The Picture, that brilliant biopic of Robert Evans, the famous Hollywood producer. Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, the film cleverly begins with curtains being drawn, then the quote, “There are three sides to every story: yours… mine… and the truth.” We then are able to appreciate a biography fully informed that it’s just a story, but not the whole truth. We can make of it what we want, but we know it’s not the full story on Evans.

Clash, being a performer himself, could have received similar treatment. We meet the man behind the puppet, but who’s the man behind the man? Marks didn’t go there. Of course, no news in this case is going to detract from the joy and happiness that Clash has brought to millions of children, or the accomplishments of Being Elmo. His story is still a remarkable one. But it’s a story more complicated than the film suggests. The events of recent days should be a warning shot to documentary biographers to consider a disclaimer or a knowing wink that a film is only a snapshot of a person, and not necessarily an open book.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen