"Found footage" is a new term used to describe a genre that has been popping up more and more in cinemas, popularized in the horror film, The Blair Witch Project in 1999. We are told, this humble video is all that remains of the hapless story-teller and we apologize for its poor quality, but you need to see this.
It is a kind of faux cinema verite style, which defies all the conventions of film-making. It means to persuade us into belief not by its strengths, but by its weaknesses: poor lighting, crazy camera angles, dismal sound recording and unrecognizable actors. Anything inexcusable in a normal film would only support the premise of a found footage film. Instead of spending time, analyzing whether the special effects were believable, we can concentrate on the actor's reactions to the effects and, true to cinema at its best, it is the imagination of the film viewer that provides the active ingredient.
Nearly-but not quite- falling into this genre is the film, "The Fourth Kind," written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi. It is, without question, one of the most dishonest things I have seen in quite a long time. In the opening, actress Milla Janovich introduces herself and explains that the film is a true story, based on real events and real footage has been juxtaposed with real actors reading real dialogue that was transcribed by real people. Get it? It's all real. Really.
It's a freaky tale of a psychologist whose husband was murdered, whose child has been so traumatized that she is now blind. But that isn't the real story. The real story is all about her patients, many of which are reporting the same sleeping disturbances, being visited by a white owl, with an irritating lack of respect for privacy. Eventually it all leads to aliens. Aliens in the bedroom. For some reason, the director decided to film key scenes in split screen- you know, like those old Doris Day- Rock Hudson films. So we have to watch as, on the left side of the screen, we see the actual video tape of the patient under hypnosis and then the dramatization on the right side.
Besides being both annoying and unnecessary, there is another problem. It's all a lie. All of it.
On the DVD blurb, we read:
Structured unlike any film before it, The Fourth Kind is a provocative thriller set in modern day Nome, Alaska where mysteriously since the 1960s a disproportionate number of the population has been reported missing every year. Despite multiple FBI investigations of the region, the truth has never been discovered. Here in this remote region, psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler began videotaping sessions with traumatized patients and unwittingly discovered some of the most disturbing evidence of alien abduction ever documented. Using never before seen archival footage that is integrated into the film, The Fourth Kind exposes the terrified revelations of multiple witnesses. Their accounts of being visited by aliens figures all share disturbingly identical details, the validity of which is investigated throughout the film.
I have no problem with the paranormal as a subject for a film or book. Bring on the witches, the aliens, the ghosts, the trolls under the bridge, and the pipe-smoking elves sitting on the mushrooms. Bring on the Munsters and the Adaams Family, it's all good as far as I am concerned.
However, it's one thing to walk into a cinema with the expectation of being entertained and it is quite another to expect a depiction of real events. It boils down to the fundamental unwritten contract the story-teller makes with his audience. Give me your trust and I will fool you and you will know you are being fooled but you will love it. I shall not disappoint. The story-teller can use all kinds of tricks to create the illusion of reality and his listeners respect this point.
At the end of the day, suspending my disbelief is a voluntary act. When I went to see The Blair Witch Project, I understood that it was fiction while I enjoyed the film. On the other hand, the maker of documentaries -even one that uses dramatization- says, I have something important to tell you. What I have to say is as true as far as I can determine. A documentary maker is not asking for a suspension of disbelief from his viewers, but for a commitment of trust. Just coming out and lying to your viewers is merely dishonesty, not storytelling. There is an essential difference between being a producer of fiction and a fabricator of lies and misrepresentations.
As Dr. Chris French said in his review of this film in the Guardian,
The reason I found this film so "disturbing" was because experience shows that no matter how obvious a hoax may be to those capable of critical thinking, there will always be many who will accept at face value the film's claim to be based on true events.
If there is such a thing as alien abductions, then it is an insult to the people who have had to endure such an event. (As if being levitated and poked and prodded by bullying bug-eyed space people isn't bad enough.) If alien abductions are some kind of unexplained hallucination, then it is even more of an insult to make a silly hoax based on fabricated evidence. I mean, who would ever believe them, no matter how sincere they might be, after this silly film?
And make no mistake, even if the film had been honestly marketed, it would definitely be a silly one. Janovich has never been one of my favorite actors and I can't help thinking she is wasting a fine modeling career. (Actors are paid to emote and models are paid to pose. Somewhere casting agents in Hollywood seem to have got confused on this point.)
By the time things start cooking in the alien abduction department, the film is nearly over. (Which is probably all for the best.) Every time we begin to see something interesting, the aliens erase the footage from the video leaving us to go blind trying to peer through "panty-hose runs". What we can make out looks more like a magic act gone horribly wrong or a comedy exorcism.
Also, the "actual" footage of the psychologist being interviewed is unintentionally disturbing, merely due to the poor quality computer distortions of her face. She ends up looking like ET in a brittle 1960s flip-up wig. (Eventually they had to pixellate her face because it looked so ridiculous)
Add some silly business about the aliens speaking Sumerian, a home-wrecking cop played by Will Patton- acting his role with a ladle and trowel- and a blond, blind daughter kidnapped by cruel-hearted space creatures, you have a greasy bucket full of stupid.
Have you seen this film? What did YOU think?