It all comes down to people and honesty. Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium. There are, however, always people involved. And with people you never know. This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries. A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view. You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors. What are they trying to say? Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction? In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded. They inspire confidence. But I also watch more questionable films.
Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film. In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics. The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it. Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen. He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere. Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation. The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy. At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up. It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path. Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?
A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin. Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it. Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity. The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances. The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man. We always have to ask that question when money is involved. Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies. It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit. It leaves more questions than answers. I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.