The simmering disillusion of white, middle-America, plagued by financial insecurity and infected by a virulent consumer culture, reaches full boil this Inauguration Day. No, I’m not talking about the recent election. I’m talking about the timely Friday theatrical release of FRAUD, a narrative film constructed from YouTube footage, which opens at the IFP Media Center and will play there for one week. Director Dean Fleischer-Camp’s film — it falls in the category of hybrid of fiction and nonfiction — is a creepy, dizzying array of quick cuts stitched together to reveal the malevolent underpinnings of the American dream that the rise of Trump has made abundantly clear.
FRAUD is America in tatters, as gleefully seen through innocuous home movies. It’s sickening but sadly all too real. To get a better look, I tossed Fleischer-Camp, a filmmaker/artist/author to watch, some questions about his film.
How did you come up with the idea for the film?
Fleischer-Camp: The concept came to me years ago when I was still editing for a living. You can get into a rut with editing gigs because some are not so great. There you are with this incredibly powerful editing software, and you’re using it to tweak the edit on a diaper commercial, just the lamest minutiae. So the basic concept of shaping a full story from everyday footage and sort of showcasing the power of editing in that way, that came to me as a recurring escape fantasy. I found the family and their footage much later.
What inspirations (filmmakers/films) did you think about during the making of the film?
Fleischer-Camp: I usually try to downplay or ignore specific inspirations while working because I think they’re better as one big soup. If I know what I’m referencing, the mystery is diminished. Also if I hold myself to the standard of some great film, I’m only going to be disappointed in the results. Some audiences have pointed out The Seventh Continent as a possible reference, which happens to be my favorite Michael Haneke movie, so maybe that’s in the mix. I always loved Badlands and Thelma & Louise and other lovers-on-the-run movies. Lettrism, Isidore Isou, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle were important discoveries to me in college, and I think FRAUD would fit in well with some of their activities.
You were subjected to some irate responses at Hot Docs. Can you please describe some of the criticism (“con artist!” “liar!”) of you/the film and your response.
Fleischer-Camp: I feel guilty talking about it because I don’t love the way I handled it. But yeah, the first question out of the gate at our premiere, a man stood up and yelled that I was a con artist. I was kind of flip, I think I responded “I may be a con artist but at least I’m an artist.” Some audience members jeered him or laughed and he stormed out feeling upset. That kind of set the tone unfortunately: Another guy called me a liar, etc., claiming it wasn’t documentary. Others in attendance sprang to my defense and eventually it blossomed into a really great dialogue about what constitutes a “documentary.” It’s an experience I think I will never forget, but secretly I regret the way I handled it. I appreciate all of the reactions I’ve received, positive and negative. They’ve renewed my faith in the vitality of the film community and in the medium’s ability to raise questions and passions to illuminating ends! Also, there’s no reason to be a jerk at a Q&A, especially not at someone who took the time to come see your film. It’s hard not to have a knee-jerk protective instinct over something you’ve spent so long working on, but I’ve gotten better at handling those.
The controversy is that some people don’t consider my film a documentary because, even though the footage is found footage sourced from YouTube, most of the events depicted in the film didn’t actually happen. It is edited seamlessly enough that this runs counter to your experience while watching it. It feels really real, and so some people feel tricked once the truth is revealed.
So the story is not “real” in the literal factual sense. But I would argue that what I’m attempting to do is the same as any documentarian, which is to access a deeper and more elusive kind of essential truth (what Werner Herzog called “ecstatic truth”) at the expense of literal truth. I would even argue that there’s plenty of room for this kind of film within the documentary tradition, which includes fully scripted and staged works like Nanook of the North as well as intentionally misleading or inaccurate movies like Vaxxed.
All documentaries take “real” footage and manipulate it to get at the filmmaker’s preferred truth, even a purist like Frederick Wiseman considers his films “fictions”, so there is a level of manipulation going on in the most basic fundamentals of the craft. I think it comes down to this: Documentary is a genre like any other. Like any genre, it’s a set of aesthetic choices, traditions, practices, etc. without firm boundaries.
The film is a constant stream of quick cuts that can be dizzying. I understand the nature of the beast but did you try to modify the impact?
Fleischer-Camp: We did some minor stabilization of the really shaky stuff, but we were limited by how low-res the footage was. The editing is so choppy because that’s how Gary (who posted most of the source videos) filmed it, but it’s also what makes the approach work: the quick cutting is so dislocating that you don’t notice the continuity errors. You end up kind of letting it wash over you and not being so discerning.
I had the sense when I saw the film at Hot Docs that you would have to go through some legal hurdles to get this released. Can you please describe the process in terms of getting the rights from the family as well as any other relevant entities (such as YouTube)?
I reached out to the family and got their blessing and the rights to their footage before we started working on the film, so that wasn’t a problem. For the rest of the footage, my wonderful producers have mounted a crazy, months-long effort to track down all the owners and license their clips. We’ve mostly had success, though we have had to replace a few things.
I can see the possibilities for a series spin off or narrative feature adaptation; is there anything in the works? What’s your next project?
If it doesn’t involve several more years of insanely meticulous editing, count me in 🙂 My next project is a feature film adaption of my Marcel the Shell series!