BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 20 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Based on a True Story

Sifting fact from fiction

BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 20 JUN 13

Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty opens with a brief text that appears on a black screen, just before recordings of real phone messages from victims trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11 fade in. It reads: ‘Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.’ Bigelow’s movie, which chronicles the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden, opts out of the standard Hollywood line, ‘Based on a true story.’ But the ambiguity over the film’s veracity erupted into controversy. Even before it was released, film critics and former members of the cia alike were debating whether the torture of detainees – graphically depicted in the film – actually led to the crucial intelligence that captured Bin Laden, as it seems so clearly to do in Bigelow’s version of events. If her disclaimer had read ‘Based on a true story’, would they have been so quick to indict her? For all its hewing closely to the course of ‘actual events’, Zero Dark Thirty could never be mistaken for a doc­u­­mentary or a piece of jour­nalism. So why hold this Hollywood version of events to a higher standard of accuracy?

Not long before Zero Dark Thirty, a less high-profile media controversy arose around the popular weekly radio programme, This American Life. The show prides itself on a sort of folksy, hybrid approach that combines storytelling and journalism – one that turns news into easily accessi­ble, first-person anecdotes. The problem came after This American Life broadcast the most popular episode in its 18-year history: a riveting exposé by actor and writer Mike Daisey narrating his visit to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are manufactured – by Daisey’s account, under horrific conditions. His story was a good one: it seemed to verify suspicions many people had about the toxins Apple was subjecting its underage workers to. And Daisey’s telling was compelling – it gave us the facts we wanted in an easy-to-swallow monologue, which he adapted from his stage show. And that’s where the ambiguity arose – he saw no problem with the em­bellishments and exaggerations of the details of his story as they served his narrative well, even if they didn’t hold up against the journalistic rules of verification and fact-checking. In fact, it was another reporter from National Public Radio (NPR), who, after hearing Daisey’s story, sensed that something wasn’t right and set out to verify the authenticity of his tale. He tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator, who couldn’t confirm many of the key dramatic plot points of his story. In the radio show’s official retraction, which aired several weeks later, the host, Ira Glass confronts Daisey: ‘I thought it was true because I saw you on stage saying “this happened to me.”’ As a consequence, This American Life has hired more fact-checkers and is more vigilant in verifying stories, though there is little doubt that if they went back and subjected past stories they’ve aired by, say, David Sedaris or David Rakoff to similar journalistic standards, they too might fail.

Quite simply, the past year hasn’t been a great one for facts, espe­cially with the US Presidential election, where, in campaign speeches and debates, the truth was treated as loosely as emotions. This was followed by a rash of false breaking news stories, egged on by the pressure of broadcast journalists to keep up with the relentless 24-hour news cycle. This frenzy to get the story ‘first’ resulted in catastrophic and embarrassing misidentifications of suspects within the first few hours of the school shootings in Newtown and the more recent Boston Marathon bombings. It was shortly after this tragedy that I remember hearing an npr reporter say on air, without irony, something along the lines of: ‘Just because you hear it on the news doesn’t mean you should trust it.’

Recent years have seen a massive growth in so-called reality television, blogs, movies based on true stories, and creative non-fiction. These formats can offer oblique angles on straightforward truth, showing us that when we look sideways at it, it begins to become indistinguishable from fiction – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Contemporary artists, too, escape the gatekeepers and fact-checkers of journalism; they feel free to complicate or corrupt documentary narratives, playing with the lines between fact and fiction.

For frieze’s first Fiction Issue, we invited artists, novelists and writers who explore that ‘dark water’, as poet Quinn Latimer describes it. Works of art, as Latimer says, are neither ‘a dream nor a document’, and that sets them apart. In novelist Katie Kitamura’s article about how art can visualize political realities through the artifice of fiction, she describes artist Omer Fast as a ‘fiction writer’. And in his specially commissioned artist’s project for this issue, Fast has indeed written a short story in which fragments of a real speech by Donald Rumsfeld are spun into a fictional biography of the man.

Are there any true stories left? Or can we derive more about the na­ture of truth through new formats for telling them? That’s the question posed in our survey on new narratives: what will happen to conventional storytelling structures with the emergence of new technologies? Artist Ian Cheng suggests that we should: ‘Imagine a narrative format that requires its authors to embrace contingency and irreversibly change during its making […] Imagine a narrative format that erodes as you erode.'

Kitamura describes fiction as something that can be used ‘to describe the contours’ of reality, which, like Latimer’s ‘dark water’ and Cheng’s ‘eroding narrative’, implies something amorphous, shifting and vague. It suggests how reality today is harder to access, perhaps too hard to fathom or accept, and especially difficult to verify or distinguish from that which is not reality. Artists and writers describe and visualize that condition. They give us a means to see truth through a fictional lens, and, in doing so, they unveil the inner mechanics of how we come to believe in a story, arriving at fiction via fact, and deriving facts from fiction.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.