The booming appetite for film and television documentaries in the new century has occurred simultaneously with an epidemic of public lying. From the myth of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, to the Wall Street meltdown, to sports dopers, literary and journalism scandals and to Internet fakes, we're in a golden age of fraud.
Cinema is the truth 24 times a second, as a character in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat said, but increasingly documentary filmmakers are also scrutinizing the assumptions of their own medium. Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing (on the Indonesian genocide), stirred things up at the South by Southwest film festival last month when he said all documentaries are based on a fiction between filmmaker and subject. Others, like Kirby Dick, director of the sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground, argue that the camera is an instrument that can distill the truth about relationships, a version of what Picasso has said of art, that it's "a lie that makes us realize truth."
There's even a whole movie on the subject of lying at this year's Hot Docs festival: Yael Melamede's (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies. The film is built around a lecture by Duke University professor Dan Ariely, who outlines a number of tests he has devised to look at the nature of lying. One of Ariely's conclusions is that lying is contagious; we rationalize doing what we think others are getting away with – so if the elite cheat, why should the rest of us try to be better? The positive message of the film is that the lying habit can be curbed by mental reminders. Even an atheist is far less likely to cheat after swearing on a Bible. The truth is simple but lying is complex, in ways that are both creative and destructive.
The Lie as mass deception: What Ariely's research does not seem to measure is the magnitude of a lie. The justifications for the 2003 Iraq invasion may be the mother of all 21st-century whoppers, the lie that Stephen Colbert referred to when he first coined the era-defining term "truthiness" back in 2005.
In War of Lies, German filmmaker's Matthias Bittner interrogates Iranian source Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, whose information about chemical weapons in Iraq was used by the Americans to justify the second Iraq war, costing the lives of 5,000 Coalition soldiers and a half-million of his own people. Janabi, a shifty figure not unlike Seinfeld 's George Costanza ("Just remember, Jerry – it's not a lie if you believe it"), is a shameless rationalizer, but, as Bittner's footage shows, also a pawn in a larger game of political expedience and media complicity.
Lies as faith: In the film, Jesus Town, USA, Julian T. Pinder and Billy Mintz's cheekily entertaining look at the 88-year-old Easter pageant in Lawton, Okla., a replica of ancient Jerusalem has been created in a nature park. The film follows the search for a new messiah when the old one retires. The choice is Zack, a beatific, long-haired, pudgy 20-year-old paperboy, but Zack has has a terrible secret he hasn't revealed: He's a Buddhist. A betrayal, judgment and resurrection all follow, in the familiar biblical order of events. Jesus Town USA, which is like a factual Napoleon Dynamite, is one of those modern documentaries that doesn't pretend it isn't pretending. There are scenes that appear staged, and the film includes clips of a 1949 Hollywood movie inspired by the pageant (The Lawton Story, aka The Prince of Peace), a reminder of the backstage story of the ultimate dramatic re-enactment.
The Lie as historical fantasy: Another replica town is featured in German director, Ella Raidel's Double Happiness. The Austrian alpine village of Hallstatt is at the site of one of the first-known human settlements thousands of years ago. Hallstatt China, its almost exact copy, was built in less than a year as a pricey new Chinese suburban development. Using models, advertisements and interviews with Chinese architects and urban planners, the film captures a disorienting sense of cannibalizing economic momentum and a yearning for authenticity, even if it means models in Sound of Music costumes singing Chinese love songs accompanied by imported oompah bands.
The Lie as political theatre:One of the conclusions of Ariely's studies on lying is that we're much more likely to pass a lie-detector test if we're lying for an altruistic reason. Consider On the Bride's Side, a film that is a timely story of refugees escaping the war in Syria and surviving shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. It's also about a fake wedding. When Italian journalist Gabriele del Grande, along with Palestinian-Syrian poet Khaled Soliman al Nassiry, decided to help a young Syrian refugee to find political refuge in Sweden, they turned it into a European-Mideastern wedding celebration, with a fake travelling wedding party of more than 20 that crossed borders for a four-day 3,000 kilometre journey. The journey, while real and dangerous, was also a performance, including dance, stories and a rap protest song. At one point, the Syrian-Palestinian "bride," Tasnim Fared, dressed in a wedding gown, stands by the sea and sings a melancholy Arabic song directly to the camera as if she were in a musical, just like the Chinese model in a commercial Double Happiness.
Lies versus literature: Blurry as the lines can be, there is, of course, a fundamental difference between truth and fiction: Truth should meet the test of external verifiability, though smart con artists make that difficult. Another story tied to the Syrian crisis is Canadian director Sophie Deraspe's The Amina Profile, concerning the mysterious author of a blog known as A Gay Girl in Damascus. Deraspe uses re-enactments and an actress to get to the truth behind the story.
Like another film in this year's Hot Docs, The Cult of JT Leroy, about the century's most prominent literary hoax, the impact of The Amina Profile may be diminished if you perform a fact check on the Internet. Or perhaps you may even remember the story from earlier episodes of that popular daily package of fact and fiction we call the news.
Editor's note: The Amina Profile was incorrectly named in the original version of this article.