The Crudeness of Nonfiction

Below are the comments that I delivered to nearly a hundred Upper School students who gathered in the Bedford Gymnasium to watch Joe Berlinger’s 2009 documentary Crude.  This acclaimed and controversial film is a legal thriller about the ongoing case that the Amazon Defense Coalition has brought against Chevron for allegedly having contaminated the water sources of the people the Ecuadorian Amazon.

In his book Manhood, the French poet, essayist and anthropologist, Michel Leiris says the following: “I bear in my hands the disguise by which I conceal my life. A web of meaningless events, I dye it with the magic of my point of view.” In effect, if we subscribe to Leiris’s way of thinking, we see that the truth is something that we conceal from ourselves. The multicolored lenses of our daily experiences, our upbringing, our families and our friends color the way that we see the world around us. To use Leiris’s metaphor, the books we read, the television that we watch, the films that we see, and the classes that we take in school all necessarily and unavoidably influence the shade of the dye with which we color our lives.

Certainly, the constant blur of media that surrounds us has a profound effect on our understanding of the world. This is not something that we can avoid any more than a fish can avoid swimming. Even the most “objective” (a word which should always appear with quotes) news story chooses what will be included in the report and what will not be. Any producer of media makes choices, whether a novelist, a journalist, a filmmaker or for that matter, a teacher writing his/her course’s curriculum. In short, every time we speak or put a pen to paper we make choices. What should be included? What should be left out? It goes without saying, of course, that these choices are highly influenced by the life experiences of the person who is making them.

While every photo and every film clip is based on a real-life archetype, and every sentence is based on an idea that its writer/speaker thinks of as true, that archetypal idea or the object of that photo or film clip is only rendered to us through the subjective lens of the speaker, writer, photographer or film director’s point of view. In short, we are left with no choice but to look with skepticism on any media that claims to be objectively true, or any book that purports to be purely nonfiction.  The terms “fiction” and “non-fiction” as a binary, as a “this or that” choice, are perhaps less useful to us in a world that is overcome with the many narratives provided by the media. As Jim Paul says, “The roominess of the term nonfiction: an entire dresser labeled nonsocks.” The film Crude, which you are all about to see, like all media that claim to document fact is just this kind of “nonfiction.” I hope that you will watch with interest and with a critical eye, but I urge you to look at this film and at the media in general as you would look at a text in your English class. This film, like all media, is to a greater or lesser degree like an essay which, whether intentionally or not, has been highly constructed. The process of that construction is, of course, doubly influenced by the inherent biases of the filmmaker and by the unavoidable biases that we ourselves bring to the film. Since we cannot avoid those biases, let’s acknowledge them and embrace them critically.

The Crudeness of Nonfiction

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