Documentary and Truth - While We're Young

While We're Young is a generational film that explores documentary filmmaking from the perspective of four individuals.


Josh (Ben Stiller) plays the truth-seeking filmmaker, fixated on finding meaning by creating context in the editing room. Obsessed with how things are, veruses using material to manipulate meaning, Josh spends ten years on an over-budget, unorganized film about a variety of things, but mostly "America. The film is about America." Josh's journey and struggle centres around his unwillingness to let his wife's father's success seep into his own documentary path. He is what we can call a purest.

Jamie (Adam Driver) is a filmmaker that takes a simple idea and stages its realities. He does this with a keen and youthful understanding of how to create emotion through storytelling. While his docu-film is arguably about discovery, in reality and as Darby says, "the film is about Jamie." He is, perhaps, the kind of filmmaker that Jean-Luc Godard is referring to when he says:

If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.

Darby (Amanda Seyfried) is Jamie's wife, an ice-cream maker, sidekick, and basically a well of information he is able to steal and use whenever he needs to. She involuntarily provides Jamie the emotional core of his successful documentary. When her story - now his-story - is sold, Jamie has no further use for her. 

Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is Josh's wife and comes from a line of successful filmmakers in her family. She is a producer and often works with her father on his films. Never has Josh let her help him with his own career, wanting to prove his creativity on his own. We never see her films or explore her side of the story. Like Darby, Jamie seeks to use her to get to her father and win over the investor world with his own film.

Frank (Peter Yarrow) is Cornelia's father, the successful filmmaker who delivers a brilliant acceptance speech at an award show's. He challenges Josh's filmmaking practices and proves indifferent to Jamie's forced drama and deception. He questions what is truth and what documentaries actually deliver to audiences:

"Fiction is about us & me and documentaries are about them / someone else." - While We're Young


What I find most powerful in While We're Young is that the film neither champions the older or younger characters. It shows all the flaws on both sides. Is Jamie a self-seeking Gatsby in his own right? YES. Does he ever hurt Josh or Cornelia in the process: NO. And that is where I see Cornelia's forgiveness and her father's indifference being realistic at the end of the film:

For "it's not where you take the things from - it's where you take them to." - Jean-Luc Godard.

Darby's old classmate fought overseas and was traumatized by the missions he was ordered to execute. Having tried to commit suicide and failed, he has to live with the memories of a painful past. Jamie takes this story and decides to weave a fictional story about how he, Jamie being the true protagonist, discovered this truth. Can we even get mad at Jamie for tainting reality? The story is fascinating and that is, in the end, what a documentary does: it takes an idea and creatively represents the idea in a story. How does this differ from fiction? Or factual entertainment? Or historical fiction? Good questions. 


Two instances in While We're Young are excellent case studies for the above questions.  

Jamie tells his interviewee / subject how he (Jamie) lost his mom to tuberculosis cancer during high school and understands loss. During this time, Josh's camera "zooms in" on Jamie's face to capture "emotion." Only later do we hear Darby tell Josh that it is her mom that died when she was in high school, not Josh's. 

In the cafe, Jamie asks Josh to re-enact the discovery of the classmate in the news for the camera. He needs to capture a genuine thrill of discovery. Josh is oblivious to Jamie's intentions and becomes a sincere character in the plot. Josh later reveals a connection between the classmate and Darby and unfoils Josh's fake Facebook idea.

Both examples demonstrate elements of truth, but fiction is wound around the story for effect. Can reality ever be captured on film? Godard says no: "every edit is a lie." We can even take this idea further to the genesis of creation and state that every frame creates an absence and that absence is the truth. There is no such thing as reality on screen. The closest films we have to reality are those sequences by early filmmakers in the silent era: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, Niagara's Summer Sorcery, and Montreal Fire Department - to name a few.

While We're Young, arriving in Toronto only a week before Hot Docs Film Festival, is an excellent film that gets our brain juices flowing and asks us to question everything we see. It also asks us to feel. What does cinema DO for us? How is the story shaped to portray the truth it wishes to uncover? How is the artifice adding to the beauty or horror of the story? Perhaps it is here we can begin to understand documentary, from an emotional perspective that seeks to uncover truth in a visual manner.