“You can’t win; If you tell lies people will distrust you. If you tell the truth people will dislike you.” – Oscar Wilde

This and other illuminating quotes about that fundamental human trait — the ability to be dishonest — welcome you at the website connected to the upcoming film (Dis)honesty — The Truth About Lies, directed by Yael Melamede. But the first thing that pops up is a question: “Have you lied today?”

That introduction sets the tone — personal, confrontational and thought-provoking — which also define this smart, accessible film. Focusing on the work of Duke professor Dan Ariely, (Dis)honesty smoothly navigates its way between Ariely’s engaging lecturing, fascinating social experiments and revealing interviews with people who have lied in major ways and paid the cost. I’m still processing the notion that humans are inclined toward dishonesty as we become more distant from each other and analogue transactions like hard currency, thanks to the digitization of, well, everything.

The range of liars who are interviewed — a cheating wife, inside traders, a basketball referee, an admissions officer, a protective mother — is impressive and disarming because they seem so normal, and their slides into the dishonesty abyss seem so relatable.

And Ariely so eloquently elaborates on his analysis of why and how we lie, that viewers should come out of watching this changed people. That was certainly the case for director Melamede, with whom I had the following email exchange.

Doc Soup Man: How did you come to making (Dis)honesty?

Yael Melamede, director of (Dis)honesty — The Truth About Lies: I was working with Dan Ariely on a TV project just as his book on dishonesty was coming out – “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty – How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves.” Dan had been doing a lot of experiments in the lab environment and thought it would be interesting to interview people who had been dishonest, which seemed immediately interesting to me.

In the spring of 2012, we brought in about 10 people over the course of a weekend — a judge, some lawyers, an actor and a number of people from other walks of life who had gone to jail and/or lost everything because of their lies. We were most taken by the stories of those whose lives had fallen apart.

Their stories were incredibly human and relatable. They gave us tremendous insight into the dishonesty we see all around us. The interviews lasted around 2-3 hours and they were very intense and often emotional. They were gripping and very affecting and encouraged us to keep talking to people. We learned that most of the people that got into serious trouble were influenced by many of the same factors that Dan studies in the lab.

I felt that these stories shed light on the kinds of stories we see in the media all the time but were much more truthful and complex. If we look at the biggest crises of our time, most of them have dishonesty at their core — the financial crisis, the Iraq War(s), the NSA privacy scandal, Lance Armstrong, the Atlanta cheating scandal, to name just a few — and the consequences are huge. If we can better understand dishonesty, hopefully we can do a better job of recognizing it and doing something about it — our own as well as that of others.

Doc Soup Man: Have you been much of a liar in your own life?

Yael Melamede: I wouldn’t say that I’m a big liar but I definitely have an issue with authority and am suspicious of too many rules. I think that when rules get too complicated, it is a sign that they aren’t well designed, effective or useful. In the process of making this film, I have certainly become much more honest.

I tell people that I feel that I am a human experiment. I have become more honest not because I consciously decided it was the best thing to do but because I have been thinking about it all the time through the work— and that lines up with Dan’s research. It’s now the lens through which I look at the world.

Dan’s research suggests that being reminded about honesty makes people act better — in my own experience, that’s been very true. 

Doc Soup Man: Following Janet Malcolm’s lead on this, I’d say that documentary filmmaking is a series of little lies stitched together to make a greater truth. Would you agree? How do you reconcile that?

Yael Melamede: The editing process in particular allows for a great deal of “trickery.” You can put words in people’s mouths, you can change the meaning of what people said, you can do all kinds of things that the audience can’t see. As filmmakers, we have the potential and the power to lie and manipulate a lot, which is why we have a tremendous responsibility not to.

The issue of trust between filmmaker and subject, as well as between filmmaker and viewer, is extremely important and we do real damage to our profession and ourselves individually if we break that trust.

Doc Soup Man: Could you describe in which way(s) you were dishonest with Dan Ariely in making the film?

Yael Melamede: I think that the only way in which I was dishonest with Dan was by not sharing my anxieties about the film with him — I think that’s a pretty lame answer, honestly.

Doc Soup Man: In what way is this film dishonest with its viewers?

Yael Melamede: Not that I’m aware of, but I could be engaged in self-deception!

(Dis)honesty is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City and is available on iTunes. The film will also be airing on CNBC on May 28, 2015.

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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