The last article I wrote for this website attracted a great deal more attention that I expected, more than I ever could have hoped to expect. I wrote a review of Tabloid (released on November 11th), in which I praised director Errol Morris’s ironic, yet sympathetic depiction of Joyce McKinney. Many people who have seen the film have agreed with it, with the vital exception of…Joyce McKinney. Various accounts online detail the extreme lengths Joyce has gone to deride the film’s ‘false’ presentation of her, and plans to sue Morris and everyone else associated with the film for gross defamation and slander. The breadth of her campaign reached new heights this week when I was startled to discover that she intends to sue me as well (see the comments attached to the original review).

I won’t dispute the exact details of her claim of defamation; someone more eloquent than me has already exquisitely rebutted them. What I wanted to write about is the idea of libel itself, explaining it and thus at the same time detailing how my review cannot be accused of the same charges.

Now as far as I understand, defamation is a statement about someone or something that claims to be factual and which portrays them in a negative way. An example would be to say that ‘Hannibal Lector likes to kill people and eat their organs.’ The sentence portrayed the subject negatively because, ‘kills people’ and ‘eats their organs’ are not normally the kind of things you would want to be associated with. The initial statement is also purporting to be true because there is no suggestion that it is merely this author’s opinion. If instead I wrote, ‘I think that Hannibal Lector likes to kill people and eat their organs’, then the statement is now purely conjecture. Luckily Hannibal Lector is not a real person and so cannot sue me, and I can confidently claim that Hannibal Lector does indeed kill people and eat their organs.

The irony of it all is that the film itself looked at the way the truth is distorted in order to suit the relevant party. The tabloids distorted the truth to make Joyce a saint/sinner depending on which they felt would sell more papers. Joyce herself maintains that Kirk is her true love and that he was taken from her by force, though as all evidence points to the contrary it would appear that it is easier for Joyce to live this lie than confront the apparent truth of the matter, that Kirk did not want to be with her.

This is not an isolated case; the fact is that everyday the truth is distorted by both the corporate and the individual. The reason that Morris’s documentaries are so exciting is because he shuns the pretentious ideals of cinema vérité that there is an objective truth that can be discovered through the camera lens. The real truth is that everybody lies, even a camera. A camera might only be a bit of machinery that can objectively record reality, but there is always someone who wields it, who chooses what to film, what to edit, what to hide and what to reveal. The documentarian is a fictional storyteller as much as any other artist, only they deliberately make greater efforts to hide this truth. This is acceptable most of the time, but if it is deemed to give a negative impression then it can create problems. After the release of sports documentary Hoop Dreams in 1994, the basketball coach Gene Pingatore sued the filmmakers as he felt that he had been negatively represented. I personally felt the coach was shown fairly, a lot more so than some of the other people and organisations in the film. It just goes to show the extent to which opinions dictate what we believe to be the truth.

The point of my review was to give my opinion on Tabloid and tell you whether it is worth your investment; it definitely is. I hoped that my review informed the reader of my opinion, no more, no less. All reviews are opinions, no film is ‘crap’ just because so and so says it is, and yet that is not to discourage the value of reviews. The world is dictated by opinion, not facts; from having faith in religion to feeling in love. This does not make them any less true, and that is what Morris’s film tried to show. If Joyce wants to believe Kirk is her true love, then let her, if she wants to believe that she has been slandered, then she is entitled to that opinion as well. This does not mean that I believe to have committed ill towards her, and anyway if it comes to a court case, then a judge will review the facts before presenting his verdict (read opinion) on the case. I will swear to claim, ‘the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’, but I can only give what is the truth in my opinion.

Alfred Joyner

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Reeling The Real is a new community dedicated to the discussion, promotion, and celebration of documentary film-making.

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