What do Pamela Smart and Viktor Bout have in common? One is an American convicted of scheming to murder her husband, the other a Russian convicted of being an arms dealer. Both are in prison. Both are the subjects of documentaries that openly wonder if they deserve to be.
The real connection, though, is that both are subjects who have lived in an age where media images of them are numerous. As much an examination of the power of media as they are profiles of individual people, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart and The Notorious Mr. Big argue that…
Well, I’m not sure, exactly. That they are innocent? That they should be exonerated? That the act of observing changes the thing you are observing? (Captivated tells us in somber tones that this is a phenomenon postulated by someone you’ve probably never heard of named Heisenberg…) The one claim that really made me think was that it is easier to scapegoat people who don’t act in culturally proscribed ways. I can agree with that. Smart and Bout both acted strange–both seeking out publicity in situations where common sense suggests most people would shun it. Captivated also mentions that Smart claims to have been on Xanax before and during her trial, which would certainly affect one’s public affect.
Captivated provides some defenders who argue for Smart’s actual innocence. I thought the film itself leaned in that direction, but whether it was willing to say “final answer” was less clear to me than it was to some of my colleagues. Nobody argues that Bout didn’t sell guns–he is shown on tape brokering the deal for which he was charged. But there are some rumblings about entrapment and whether his prosecution was more of a public relations move than it was genuinely motivated by a desire to curb the weapon trade.
The broadness of the two films meant the best hour spent at Day 2 of Full Frame was in the “Making History” panel discussion. Here again the proliferation of media images was an issue. The documentarians (Cyndee Readdean, Mark Samels, Shola Lynch) discussed the ethics of recreations, problems with accessing and inventorying an ever increasing archive, and a perceived current trend to focus on specific events that nevertheless provide greater understanding of the larger historical narratives.
Nancy Buirski moderated and responded to a question about process. Do the filmmakers start with a more focused thesis and then look for material to tell the story they want or with a general topic and let the story emerge? Buirski said that there is usually an element of the topic that gives her a “story chill” but that “I hold myself back from deciding what the essence [of a story] is.”
One implication of Buirski’s reply is that with such a process the act of the making the film becomes one of discovery that is shared with the audience. This resonated with me later in the day when I interviewed Cynthia Hill, the director of Private Violence (more on that interview to come). Hill said that she tries to give audiences answers to questions that she herself had when approaching the subject but that nobody likes to “feel like you are being beat over the head.” A film that lets you “come to these conclusions on your own” is more effective than one that simply tries to overwhelm the viewer with argumentation.