A couple of weeks ago, before I started writing this piece, I stumbled upon a realization. I was outside of my workplace, in one of the rare short breaks I have. The sun was shining and a gentle breeze caressed the trees around me. It was a beautiful day, too beautiful to spend it working, I thought to myself. As I usually do when I am alone, I decided to check my phone, mindlessly scrolling through countless pictures, videos, stories, and posts. Pool parties, champagne bottles, #GoodTimes. “Of course,” I said out loud, “people decide to have fun when I’m working.” But then it dawned on me: This — call it a picture, video, or story — is just documentation, it is not a feeling, not a universal truth. The way I perceived these posts is my interpretation or understanding of the footage in itself. Then, I questioned myself, who do we post this footage for? Who is our audience? What is our discourse? I don’t know if I have the answers to these questions now (or if I ever will), but I believe this is something worth exploring when paralleled with the documentary mode of cinema.
In the past couple of years, with the presence of so much footage in the digital sphere, documentary filmmakers have mined the bank of archives for images. There are a handful of examples that come to mind, like Dominic Gagnon’s infamous 2015 collage Of the North, in which found media — in this case, YouTube videos — are used, repurposed, and shuffled to support Gagnon’s voice and discourse. However, there has been a lot said about Gagnon’s film. The documentary that stands out for me is Jenny Popplewell’s 2020 film, American Murder: The Family Next Door.
There are many reasons why Popplewell’s film is relevant. First of all, it is based on the high-profile case of the Watts Family homicide. Structured like a ‘true crime,’ American Murder needs a narrative structure that benefits mystery. The true-crime format the film adopts forces American Murder to have a revelatory nature. Putting first the ‘aha!’ feeling of uncovering the murderer, Popplewell’s documentary falls into the realm of spectacle that many other true crime films or shows do.
We are so concerned about the final reveal and the climax of the mystery, that we tend to forget that these are real people. However, what separates Popplewell’s film from the rest is the content of the film itself. Sharing the same space, the spectacle of revelation and reality come hand in hand in American Murder. Reality, as we understand it in the digital age, is at the vanguard of this true-crime experiment.
The ‘whodunit’ curiosity that brews in the audience feels different than other documentaries that tackle similar subjects due to the lack of reenactments or direct interviews. There is no place for conscious self-representation nor for rebuttal. American Murder promises that what we see is what indeed happened chronologically.
Popplewell announces in the first seconds of her film that:
“All materials in this film were captured by the police, media, or uploaded to the internet. Personal footage and messages were also provided by Shanann’s family and friends.”
Within these two sentences, in the form of disclaimers, we are positioned in an intimate personal relationship with the people whose lives (and deaths) we are about to see depicted. This brings up two very important questions, a dialectic between two terms that we might use interchangeably in our daily jargon: fact and truth.
On one hand, we are told that the images that follow this disclaimer are real, factual representations of events that took place in a unique temporal space. Singled out, this raw footage is a fact, recorded documentation that stands for what it shows. For example, Shannan Watts’ Facebook video of a family gathering, when seen individually, is exactly that: an audiovisual rendering of an event.
On the other hand, any and every raw image we consume is immediately processed and interpreted through our own experiences. It is here that the fact, the real, is split into a three-pronged concept of truth. Let us take the same example of Shanann’s family gathering. For the creator and poster of the video, the raw footage is encoded with truth, like the idea of a strong loving family. Shanann imprinted the footage with a positive value and her truth at the moment. For the original viewers (the social media audience), the images of the family gathering might be encoded with different truths, different understandings. Maybe for some, this footage elicits happiness, for others tenderness, and in other cases envy. These, just like Shanann’s, are all valid truths and personal understandings.
For the filmmaker and the audience, Shanann’s family gathering adopts a completely different meaning. Taken away from its original context (a social media post), and transfixed into a montage that follows her murder, this family gathering is read as a macabre premonition. The smile Shanann wears is no longer a basic recognizable gesture, but a larger-than-life testament of her character and her story, at least according to Popplewell’s film.
The ultimate truth we perceive as the audience is Popplewell’s rhetoric and her beliefs, as it is her voice that brings the documentary forth. From the choice of words in the title — American…Family…Next Door — the filmmaker plays with the idea that Watt’s case is common and that the American notion of a nuclear family is at risk. Aptly embracing the mystery and fears of the genre she is adopting, Popplewell’s documentary is indeed chilling, sometimes hard to grasp, and hard to look at because of how intimate it is. This is when another question arises. It is widely understood that the filmmaker’s voice is the conveyor of truth, yet what happens when the raw footage the filmmaker uses is so impregnated with performativity and encoded with other notions of truths?
When the reveal is made that Chris Watts is guilty of the murder of Shanann and her two children, one cannot help but think that everything we just saw was a performance. Yet none of the players knew who they were performing for. Chris’ lies and Shanann’s social media posts were all originally intended to be heard and seen by other people.
Maybe the voice, the rhetoric, and the truths we are seeing are not Popplewell’s. She aptly organized it chronologically, but the conveyors of what is happening are the Watts themselves. This disruption of the previous notion of the voice of the documentarian is an important example of how the digital age has affected the process of filmmaking and how filmmaking is perceived.
I have more questions than answers. I believe the use of social media posts changes the way we should perceive found footage and understand documentaries. Never before could we find this level of agency in raw material before. It changes the way we should also identify the ethics of documentary. As a filmmaker and part of the audience, I am forced to shift my paradigm when it comes to the documentary mode, too. This piece is not only born out of a realization, its inception is also permeated with a big question mark.
The digital age and the presence of social media performance have and will continue to condition the way I approach filmmaking as an art. This medium that has been enthralled with the representation of reality, even decades earlier before André Bazin put it in words, now faces the addition of a new tool that is undeniably resourceful. The (almost) infinite intangible bank of factual images that exists in ‘the cloud’ provides a constant stream of inspiration and material. As a filmmaker, I believe it has never been easier to represent reality as it is today.
However, as a member of the audience, I cannot help but feel icky about this tool. My digital life, which is a terrifyingly great portion of my life outside of it, is now obtainable by anyone who wants to toy with it. The way I am perceived by others can be easily tweaked and reshaped. By the same token, this has sparked an alarming curiosity to know, see, and consume other people’s digital lives. The aforementioned bank of factual images has developed a craving to absorb as much as you can.
Finally, as a human, outside of the cinematic realm, I feel social media and the Bank of Images have affected my emotional state negatively. The fear of missing out, the urgency to know it all, the insufferable but unavoidable comparisons with everyone else’s lives… the list could go on and on. I just feel overwhelmed by it all, but also forced to be connected to it like a lifeline.
Cronin, Paul, editor. Herzog on Herzog. Faber and Faber, 2002.
Nichols, Bill. Speaking Truths with Film: Evidence, Ethics, Politics in Documentary. University of California Press, 2016.