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'The Art of the Steal' highlights one-sided nature of some documentaries

"We never positioned ourselves as people who were hostile and had any agenda," he says. But his film is hostile and has an agenda. It uses a well-developed set of polemical techniques -- ominous music, imputations of dark motives, ad hominem interviews -- to connect only the dots that make its case.

Rimel, who refused the filmmaker an interview, says she hasn't seen it and doesn't intend to, which means she'll avoid seeing its repeated use of unflattering photographs of her. Argott says he thinks the Pew folks dismissed him early in the film's progress because they didn't take him or his project seriously -- "they thought we were going to disappear, the film would never be seen" -- but Rimel says the Pew knew early on that the film wouldn't be fair.

"There was some errant e-mail traffic that indicated they were prepared to pay for disgruntled employees to talk," Rimel says. Argott says the likely e-mail in question was from Feinberg, the film's executive producer.

"That didn't come from us. That came from Lenny, who was kind of an outsider, who didn't really understand the way documentary works," Argott says. There was never any intention on the filmmaker's part to pay for interviews, he says. Rimel declined to share the e-mail.

It is precisely this sort of back-and-forth -- the sometimes tedious attempt at journalistic evenhandedness -- that many documentarians hope to avoid in their films. You hear this a lot: We are not journalists, but filmmakers, which is something else, which gives us greater license to tell more artful and sharper stories.

"Why can't it just be a good story?" Argott asks when asked whether he would label his film a documentary. "Film is film."

There are important documentaries that simply couldn't have been made according to the standards of mainstream journalism.

Kirby Dick's 2009 "Outrage," which discusses rumors about homosexuality among anti-gay political leaders, directly confronts what it argues is a double standard in the traditional media -- and it couldn't make its argument without violating that standard.

Werner Herzog's documentaries navigate between what he calls "ecstatic" and mundane truth -- and audiences know full well to check their bearings before believing anything. In many cases, films about evil -- genocide, torture, bigotry -- don't include "the other side" because the other side deserves no hearing.

Argott's film is different. There is another side that needs to be heard, and the truth of the larger Barnes drama lies between them.

"The Art of the Steal," which may well reach a large audience innately sympathetic to David over Goliath no matter what the facts are, raises larger questions about how individuals and organizations can respond to documentary films. There is no letters-to-the-editor page for the subjects of documentaries, and the notion of countering a film with more film, as online videos often circulate in argument with each other, is impractical, given the time and money it takes to create a documentary.

Pew has responded with an online explanation and rebuttal of some of the claims made in Argott's film. It doesn't plan anything more than that.

But given the success of the film, and the size and reputation of the Pew, this is a fascinating test case. As newspapers shrink and other media grow trivial, documentary film is doing more of the work of public argument in American society. But there is no central clearinghouse for the claims being made by a vibrant, freewheeling and expanding documentary community.

It would be a fascinating use of foundation money to study this phenomenon rigorously -- to pick, say, 50 of the most popular documentaries of the past decade, fact-check them, study their reach and influence, and objectively report back on the reliability of the form. It would be just the sort of public service the Pew Charitable Trusts have been performing for decades.

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