`50/50' mixing facts with fiction

At Maryland Film Festival, the latest from Levinson, Fontana

May 08, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Those attending the movie 50/50 at the Maryland Film Festival today will undoubtedly find themselves moved by depictions of people whose lives are devastated by Huntington's disease, a cruel, degenerative illness passed from one generation to another.

The audience just won't know who on the screen is for real and who is acting the part.

That confusion of fact and fiction caused an angry stir among movie-goers last month in Durham, N.C., where 50/50, a "work-in-progress" produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, debuted at the documentary film festival Full Frame. At a discussion after the film, Fontana and the film's director, Ted Bogosian, faced a crowd that was at least as upset about the way the film had been made as by its subject matter. More than a few in the audience, including other documentary filmmakers, complained of being duped; their heartfelt responses to the movie, they complained, had been based on false premises.

"It was definitely heated," says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival who was on hand at Full Frame. "I've been to a lot of [film discussions] and never seen anything like it."

Dietz's fondest hope is that 50/50's Maryland audience will be every bit as provoked.

The conversation about mixing the real and the make-believe in some ways mirrors an ongoing one in the field of journalism. Yet, in spite of recent titanic scandals at major newspapers, the boundaries are fairly precise and commonly understood in that profession. 50/50 already has sparked debate about whether similar demarcations exist in filmmaking. Are documentaries a branch of journalism that must hew rigidly to the observed or actual? Or, are they another form of art, in which a multitude of methods, from the most abstract and surreal to the most concrete, are equally valid ways to represent human experience?

For Geoff Pingree, a film scholar at Oberlin College, the answer is simple in its expression, if complicated in implication. To him, "True-false is an impoverished way of discussing any film." Contrivance and manipulation are part of all moviemaking, documentary included, says Pingree. Subject matter, camera angles, sound, music, editing - all are choices made by filmmakers of any stripe. "The film, documentary or feature, is not the real world," says Pingree. "It is a piece of plastic. It stands between us and an actual experience."

Perhaps the question posed, he says, isn't whether any film is true but is it truthful?

With purpose

Even among those who believe documentaries come in all varieties, some see 50/50 as unacceptably crashing barriers. "If there's no need to get this in real life, then there's pretty much nothing for me to do as a documentary filmmaker," said Paul Stekler, maker of the documentary George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, and the forthcoming, Last Man Standing about Texas politics, which also screened at Full Frame.

Blurring the line between the real and make-believe - erasing it even - is exactly what the makers of 50/50 explicitly set out to do. Joining documentary and dramatic filmmaking techniques was as much a goal in the making of the still unfinished movie as illuminating the anguish of Huntington's Disease. The title of the movie is a pun suggesting as much. It conveys not only the odds of acquiring the ruinous disease from a parent carrier but also the very way the film is constructed by combining real people and actors.

The idea of mixing the two was hatched by Fontana and Levinson, both acclaimed for creating fictions on television or film (together on the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street). To Fontana, the project was an experiment. Was it possible to combine strengths from both sides of filmmaking - the authenticity of documentary and the storytelling from dramatic film? Combined, would one degrade the other or could they produce a new kind of moviemaking experience?

"The point of this," says Fontana, "is to try to mix the two to see if the electricity that comes from documentary and the electricity that comes from a fictional film can be put together to create lightning."

He and Levinson approached Bogosian, an award-winning documentarian (he was nominated for an Emmy for his 1998 look at the making of one memorable episode of Homicide) and asked him about blending their techniques to make a "socially conscious" film bearing on human reproduction.

Bogosian was game. "I've been making documentary films since 1978," he said, "and I haven't forgotten conventional methods. But pioneering something new is not only our responsibility but our reward."

And, he frankly loves the result. "I really think this genre unlocks the potential of both documentary and drama. It props each other up to new heights. We've touched the third rail and done things in a new way."

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