From Minding the Gap (courtesy The 2050 Group)

Minding the Gap was one of 2018’s most acclaimed documentaries, with audiences and critics alike praising its engagement with its subjects and tough themes, such as coping with histories of abuse. But for me, the film finally cemented a fundamental mistrust of the seemingly innocuous text that often appears at the end of documentaries, updating the audience on what’s happened to their subjects. This kind of rhetorical move, used to provide closure on often volatile periods in the characters’ lives, is a widely accepted convention. It’s designed to placate the viewer … regardless of how the real events might have actually played out.

This conclusion came after seeing multiple iterations of Minding the Gap. In response to feedback from public screenings and private workshops, director Bing Liu and his team continued to refine the film, including its pre-credit title cards. To be clear, the fact that the text changed does not trouble me. Many filmmakers do this to account for new developments in their stories. Indeed, many well-traveled documentaries undergo significant refinement after first showing in public. This is an unavoidable result of the harried timeline required to get a film into the narrowing path of the few festivals prestigious enough to attract a robust buyers’ market. When considering projects for these festivals, programmers are watching hundreds of unfinished films whose credits and closing title cards are often missing even placeholder text.

But with Minding the Gap, the changes to the text epilogue are inflected by the moral implications of its character-driven narrative. The film constructs a fable of a childhood friendship between Liu and its two other main characters, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson. Liu belatedly discovers that Zack is physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, Nina. Out of this twist, Liu embarks on a mission to investigate the physical abuse that all three main characters and their loved ones have suffered from their fathers. The film’s last significant scene is a twilit confrontation between Liu and Zack about Zack’s justification for his violence against women, driven by his burgeoning alcoholism. The issue is ultimately unresolved, an ambivalent reflection of a problem that frequently has no obvious solution, aided by a society that maintains silence.

Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap (courtesy The 2050 Group)

Before the credits roll, and after a brief clip showing Nina and Zack interacting in a peaceful manner, the film tells us: “Nina and Elliot [her and Zack’s son] have their own apartment. She is working to become a high school counselor.” Next, Zack is shown cuddling with his new girlfriend, Sam, followed by: “Zack was promoted to roofing foreman. He’s living with Sam and continues to pay child support.” Even a minor character gets an update to add levity: “Zack’s dog, Cheese, moved in with Zack’s dad and stepmom.” Because they’re in text form, these upbeat bits are the most visible of the edits. They are dialed down from the placeholders that showed at earlier screenings; Zack’s update, for example, used to celebrate his “regular” child payments. Perhaps such changes were made in response to comments that the text unfairly heroizes Zack, who does not directly acknowledge what he did to Nina within the film itself.

So the epilogue has ostensibly become more neutral on whether Zack has improved as a father and romantic partner, instead of suggesting that’s the case. But Nina’s story still climaxes in a scene wherein she asks Liu not to confront Zack because she is afraid for her own safety. To reassure the audience that the film was ethically made, then, the epilogue must convince us that Nina’s relationship with Zack was not compromised. By spotlighting how he is continuing the payments (something he decries as unfair earlier in the film), Minding the Gap still offers “proof” that Zack has claimed responsibility while only providing the scantest video evidence that he visits his child. The decision to maintain an uplifting ending provides a more palatable resolution to its narrative arc, and redeems an abusive character without investing additional time in establishing such a shift.

Minding the Gap is not the only documentary to fall into this trap. Nor will it be the last, as long as nonfiction filmmakers continue to try to satisfy our desire for closure. Whenever these text updates appear, they’re an answer to the ubiquitous “Where are they now?” questions from audiences during filmmaker Q&As — particularly if the film is, like Minding the Gap and most mainstream American documentaries, made with the traditional three-act narrative structure. In extreme cases, such tidy conclusions betray the messy, complex reality we live in.

From Amateurs in Space (courtesy Danish Documentary)

Not one but two documentaries were made about the “eccentric” Danish engineer Peter Madsen before he killed and dismembered Swedish journalist Kim Wall in 2017. There was 2009’s My Private Submarine and 2016’s Amateurs in Space, which was still enjoying a long festival run when Madsen was arrested for Wall’s murder. Madsen had gained notoriety for his “self-built” (with lots of volunteer help/exploitation) submarine, the Nautilus — which happened to be where he later killed Wall.

For Amateurs in Space, filmmaker Max Kestner followed Madsen and then-collaborator Kristian von Bengtson for six years as they attempted to send a man into space. Watching the film in light of Madsen’s crimes, certain lines are chilling. For example, his sit-down interview introduction ends with this earnest-sounding bit: “I just want for everyone to remember that we don’t live forever, and to enjoy the very short amount of time we have remaining in the very best way.” Though beset by an overly manipulative score and hewing to a contrived dramatic plot about rocket launches, the film appears clear-eyed about Madsen’s psychopathic tendencies, though they stay in the realm of snotty emails. It closes with a company-wide meeting where the staff of Madsen’s company, Copenhagen Suborbitals, votes to censure him over an unbalanced email he sent demanding von Bengtson’s resignation. Afterwards, Madsen has a brief and not particularly deep chat with a longtime staffer about his “demons,” paranoia, and need for self-aggrandizement. And yet the film summarizes the abrupt ending to this collaboration in romantic terms:

After the breakup, Peter Madsen opened the company RML SpaceLab where he’s building his new manned spacecraft.

Along with others, Kristian von Bengtson founded the professional space project Orbital Express, which builds booster rockets for satellites.

The remaining members of Copenhagen Suborbitals carried on the association.

In hindsight, these objective-seeming sentences shield Madsen’s dark mental state. According to a Wired article on the Wall murder, Madsen often exhibited disturbing behavior at his places of work, signaling an obsession with sex, murder, and fascism. Further, the full name of Madsen’s new company was the self-referential “Rocket Madsen Space Lab,” and its hangar shared a shipyard with Copenhagen Suborbitals — two missing details that cast his actions after the “breakup” in a more vengeful light. The article also includes this telling anecdote: “[Robert] Fox, who spent 100 days with Madsen and his crew while making My Private Submarine, said that ‘women found him fascinating’ and that the Nautilus sometimes played a role in his seduction strategies. ‘This is my submarine. You want to see my submarine? He kind of used to pull that off a lot,’ Fox recalled.” Madsen also went by a Nazi nickname, and mused on plans for murdering women and where he would dispose of their bodies. None of that made it into either of the documentaries.

From Amateurs in Space (courtesy Danish Documentary)

The “Where are they now?” or “What happened next?” title card trope is also frequently used by historical dramas and other fictional “based on a true story” films, often accompanied by photos or video footage of the real-life figures involved. In fact, this stylization was first developed in fiction, and continues to show up in everything from Milk (2008) to I, Tonya (2017) to The Farewell (2019). This visual evidence of the continuation of the characters’ lives acts as a tenuous link to reality, a way for these fictionalizations to claim a connection to the truth as a source of power. The further a film strays from the “true story,” the more authority it gains from such an epilogue, and its transformation of history is better slotted into our understanding of the events.

Why do nonfiction films, which are drawn from reality and not just based on it, feel they need further evidence of their truth-telling capacity? Amateurs in Space is a reminder that, just like Hollywood biopics, documentaries don’t necessarily excavate the depths of their characters, and instead condense human lives into easily consumable storylines. Kestner’s story is about Madsen and von Bengtson, and it brushes off Madsen’s behavioral abnormalities as the result of a concussion (and not in a particularly convincing way). The film is currently available on Amazon Prime in the US, but as a calcified time capsule. The closing title cards aimed to make for a more complete ending, but are now exposed as woefully inadequate at doing so. Here’s the real epilogue: Madsen is serving a life sentence for Wall’s murder, and Rocket Madsen Space Lab sits empty.

Bringing up the shortcomings of these epilogues in regard to adjudicating the moral development of film subjects is not about judging the films themselves. Rather, it’s about interrogating audience belief in documentary narratives, and questioning how filmmakers take advantage of and feed into this phenomenon, both knowingly and unknowingly. There are alternatives, however. What happens when, instead of stifling the complications of reality, filmmakers acknowledge and engage with them?

The simplest answer is to follow the same characters over several films, thus not putting the weight of long-term change on a single work. The most famous such project is Michael Apted’s Up series, which has revisited its subjects every seven years since 1964. Proper to its sociological origins as a test of class mobility (or immobility) in England, each installment is curious about the effects of religion, economics, and mental health on each character. The series has morphed over its 50+ years to reflect not only on its subjects’ pasts, but also their dreams for the future and their conceptions of self and happiness. 63 Up was broadcast by the BBC this past June. With many of its participants settling into retirement, the film exhibits an ease with life’s contingencies that’s born of reflection rather than a misguided attempt to solve societal ills.

From Primas (courtesy True/False Film Festival)

A filmmaker’s duty to their subjects and audience took an unplanned turn in the case of Argentinian-Canadian director Laura Bari’s second and third features, Ariel (2013) and Primas (2017). Bari utilizes documentary as a form of restorative work for people who have undergone severe trauma. In Ariel, the titular subject is her brother, whose legs were shredded in an industrial accident. After the release of the film, however, Ariel was convicted of sexually abusing his pre-adolescent daughter over a period of years. In response, Bari devoted Primas to this niece, Aldana, and Aldana’s cousin Rocío, who also was a victim of horrific sexual violence. The film’s focus is the recovery process of abuse survivors, and not investigating the mental state of the abuser. Ariel is never even mentioned by name; it was only through talking about the details of the film that a colleague made the connection for me. But in conversations with Bari, and interviews she’s given about the film, she is candid about the link, and also about the imperative to undo the silence that perpetuates victimization. To her, the only possible response to the valorization of Ariel after learning he was a “monster” was to make an entirely different film, and then let both exist side by side.

Other documentaries use their ending titles to directly contradict what the audience has just seen, either by adding context or revealing something that had previously been hidden. At its worse, this is merely a gotcha moment for the audience, or a poorly veiled attempt to universalize a film’s themes. But at its best, this can productively smudge the idea of objective reality. It’s a way to let the audience into the process of how filmmakers encounter and transform reality.

From If Only There Were Peace (courtesy True/False Film Festival)

One of the most memorable examples of this kind of epilogue comes in Carmine Grimaldi and Deniz Tortum’s short doc If Only There Were Peace (2017). The title is taken from a line that a helpless actress is forced to recite over and over during the shooting of a Turkish melodrama about the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Grimaldi and Tortum observe as the production, which is purporting to help refugees by creating a movie to spread awareness via the film festival circuit, creates an atmosphere of terror toward its non-Turkish and female cast and crew. The short is an ingenious mirror, questioning the possibility of changing the wider societal power dynamics that are being reinscribed in the shoot. The ending explains the circumstances of filming, “Recorded on January 30th, 2016 with Alemdar Productions,” before sliding into the unexpected:

Two months later, Alemdar closed its doors.

Its manager had begun smuggling refugees, and fell into debt with a Turkish mafia.

They seized the studio and equipment. The manager fled to Greece.

The film depicted here was never completed.

It appears members of this ineffectual and abusive production company recognized their hypocrisy and sought to apply real action to their words. In doing so, the manager became a refugee, and If Only There Were Peace turned from an ethnographic study of a film set cum making-of doc into a record of a misguided attempt at human rights activism. Living is truly a process of discovery.

Abby Sun is a freelance film/video programmer and writer.

2 replies on “When Documentaries Muddle the Truth Instead of Pursuing It”

  1. Really interesting discussion, thanks! I love the “Up!” films and didn’t know 63 Up is available (but perhaps not to me).

  2. There’s a need for more media literacy, especially nowadays. There are so many questions left unanswered around every film, documentary, bio-pic, etc. Questions like “Who paid for this?” “What was left on the cutting room floor?” We as viewers need to keep approaching all motion pictures with a skeptical eye, now that film-makers have tools that literally can trump reality.

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