The Documentarain - Viewer Contract and the Epistemological Game of Pseudo-Documentary
So as not to repeat the set up of a previous review regarding the "prima facie" elements of the film, My Olympic Summer engages and subverts the relationship between viewer and filmmaker, a relationship that, for better and worse (asymmetric power relations), asks the viewer to "trust" the filmmaker, when the apparent generic form is "documentary".
When the viewer is presented with images that appear to be factual, and hears a voice-over that appears to be that of the filmmaker, and the filmmaker's chosen formal style, a recognizable one at that (think of the documentaries of Ross McElwee) validates every reasonable assumption the viewer might make about the veracity of the material, Is the viewer accountable for being "gullible"?
In game design principles, we learn that good games are ones where players have a fair chance of winning. Similar aesthetics might apply to films that use narrative form with protagonist and antagonist, which My Olympic Summer does. But, that conflict between protagonist and antagonist operates on two levels. The prima facie level is a conflict between a wife and a husband, as the choral voice of the son narrates. On this level, the film is a skillfully told family story. The film is a stunning and beautiful work of personal storytelling with a fantastic voice-over performance, perfectly scripted, and b-rolled with news and family footage eloquently to achieve a fascinating origin-of-self narrative. We complete the film with the sense that since the filmmaker was not in the story yet (still unborn), that because of the cathartic completion of the Black September Massacre of the 1972 Munich Olympics, our narrator filmmaker was conceived by parents who were directly involved. Had events not happened as history relates in those fateful Olympics, it is possible that the wife and husband in the film would have separated, divorced, never reconciled, and that the filmmaker would never have been born.
But there is another layer at play. The filmmaker is playing a game with the viewer. He is asking at a hidden level, Will the viewer believe what I am telling? Will the viewer catch me in a lie? And now we get back to game design aesthetics as they apply to filmmaking. Let's ask the simplest of questions. In the conflict in this game between viewer and documentarian, does every player have a fair chance of winning in the game of this film? On that account, the answer is complicated. If you witnessed the Black September event in 1972, and you remember what you saw so well that you trusted it was true and thorough, then yes, you might beckon the question, I don't remember a Jewish Chaplain in the story, and I think the filmmaker is making this part up. But the spread of years from 1972 to 2007 is 35. And even if you remembered the Black September event as I did upon seeing My Olympic Summer, I doubted my memory of what I saw back in 1972. I doubted in retrospect that what I saw and heard on the news with ABCs John McKay, was complete or accurate, as we now so cynically think toward our news media. And so, the tendency is to believe that the authority of the filmmaker with privileged personal knowledge, supersedes one's own knowledge. Couple this with the social pressure one feels to silence doubt when one shares personal facts, facts that are not blatantly suggestive of conspiracy theories, but that are stories of one's family, and the lives they allegedly lived. And finally, there is the tendency to be curious about the experiences of persons that are peripheral to a major historical event. All of these conditions stack the rules of the Epistemological Game that all documentarians make (psuedo or otherwise), in favor of the filmmaker of My Olympic Summer. There are no obvious clues or winks to the viewer that what is being presented could be fabricated. So, in a sense, "gullible" is an unfair description of the person who "believed" the film as fact. And indeed, if one peruses the Internet and looks for responses to the film, many people did believe what was represented. On this hidden level, the game play is quite unfair, and for however long one goes through life after seeing the film without a correction, some will believe false facts they heard in the film, be they truthful in spirit in the representation of the relationships between characters (the filmmaker's parents).
Once one discovers that the film is playing a one-sided Epistemological Game, the most interesting question is revealed indirectly. Does a documentarian and her/his viewer have an implicit contract that the documentarian must intend to reveal facts? If one takes on the mantle of documentarian, does that documentarian have an unwritten agreement with the viewer that the facts represented in the film are indeed true? Does My Olympic Summer breach this agreement, and/or does the breach better serve the viewer in that it now makes the viewer aware that such a contract exists, and that the viewer should beware here forward that the presenters of "truth," documentarians, are to be forever distrusted? And lastly, does the filmmaker have an obligation along the way to repair harm done for misleading a public to believe something that was not factual? And lastly, are the rules of the Epistemological Game of documentary the same for documentarians who populate the genre of the short film that plays in museums and film festivals, and not in classroom or non-fiction educational television or long form journalism/news? All of these are the questions that My Olympic Summer so ingeniously provokes... once you discover the Epistemological Game, if you discover its existence.
In retrospect, My Olympic Summer is an excellent film that poses some important questions, and that torments the thoughtful viewer through the problems of the documentary genre and form, and particularly anyone who had any residue of shock around the events of Black September, Munich 1972.
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