The Fictions of Documentary: An Interview with Charles Fairbanks

August 2, 2017   •   By Simon Schatzberg

THE MODERN JUNGLE, Charles Fairbanks’s first full-length film, is a vibrant documentary portrait of 21st-century life in an indigenous Zoque community in Chiapas, Mexico. The film, co-produced by Zoque visual artist and writer Saul Kak and Fairbanks, a Nebraska-born filmmaker, professor, and wrestler, follows Juan and Carmen, two aging Zoques, as they interact with globalization and commodity fetishism in the form of a health supplement pyramid scheme. 

Early in the film, the camera follows Juan as he visits his neighbors and asks them to lend him money that he needs to travel to a hospital. The amount of money that Juan asks for — 200 pesos, about 10 US dollars — may seem small, but it is a considerable sum in indigenous communities where cash is hard to come by. The prevailing ethics of documentary filmmaking are violated when Juan turns around to face the camera, and asks for money from Fairbanks and Kak. In documentary film, there is a taboo against paying subjects, the argument being that it somehow corrupts the subjects. But Fairbanks and Kak are conscious that by their very presence they have already corrupted the reality they have come to document.

For Fairbanks, the role of the documentary filmmaker — a transparent medium that transmits true stories to viewers — is a fiction. Instead of trying to hide it, Fairbanks and Kak emphasize the ways that their presence changes the reality they are recording, the ways that they are indeed creating the situations that they document. The Modern Jungle destabilizes not only the myth of the untouched native community, but also the myth of documentary film.


SIMON SCHATZBERG: How did this project come about?

CHARLES FAIRBANKS: I was teaching at UNICACH, the Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas, and Saul Kak was in my class. He was a visual arts major and had studied mostly painting, but he had taken a course in film, and he showed me a script for a short film he wanted to make in his native language of Zoque. It seemed like a cool project, and he had no equipment, so I said I would help him. Soon we were filming in his hometown.

And right away, we had some amazing material. Other parts of the short film were totally unfeasible on our meager budget, so we kept the best parts and started shooting documentary, looking for stories. We had already filmed with Juan, so we continued with him. Juan was sometimes difficult to work with, but he was always interesting, always unpredictable. So we kept up with Juan, and indeed, an interesting story emerged.

Saul’s project started as a fiction. It was going to be a memoir-esque piece about growing up in traditional Zoque culture, including finding his calling to be an artist through a series of dreams. In fact, the scene in The Modern Jungle where Juan is doing the cura [a healing ceremony] on the baby, was shot for the short film. The baby was going to be the male main character, though she’s actually a girl, played by Saul's daughter. This scene was written as a fiction within the context of the short film, but it was very documentary in how it was made: Juan really is a curandero, and he was really doing this cura on a baby. We never finished the short film, but that cura was the first scene we knew we’d include in whatever our film was to become.

I understand that there is a certain taboo in documentary film against paying subjects. How did you navigate that as an ethical issue?

At first, when it was the short film, it was just Saul’s project, and I was volunteering my time to help realize the short film. Later, when we decided to shoot documentary, two things had happened. First, it became clear that we weren’t just working from the script Saul had made, we were collaborating on something else. So everyone could tell I was invested in a different way. Meanwhile, I had gotten a Guggenheim grant, so I decided to use that money to make this film. It paid primarily for my transportation to Mexico, and to compensate the people we were working with. So Saul, Juan, and Carmen received a salary, per diem.

So I started paying them when I became more involved, but that was also when we started shooting documentary. I know it’s strange, and some people would say that it’s unethical. It’s definitely not standard practice to pay your subjects, and a no-no for journalism. But it seemed obvious to me that, given our different circumstances, and how I would reap benefits — if not financially, at least in terms of my career — that they needed the money more than I did. So I felt like I had to pay them: it would have been unethical not to pay them. I could have given them gifts, but I couldn’t consistently have given them gifts that would have been as useful to them as money.

On the one hand, I recognize that there are concerns about paying subjects. If you pay your sources in a journalistic context, you run the risk that they’ll just tell you anything — even lie — in exchange for the money. But for me, it was never about paying for information, it was just about paying for time. Yet that’s still a concern for an ethnographic work. I think many ethnographers, anthropologists — old-school anthropologists especially — would think that I’m corrupting these people by giving them money, by making them, say, more dependent on money. But money is already what Juan is struggling to get every day.

For a documentary filmmaker, to what extent do you feel it is appropriate to create or manipulate situations, as opposed to finding a reality and documenting it?

As I was learning the craft, one of my biggest influences was the Japanese filmmaker Kazuo Hara. Abé Markus Nornes describes his work, and that of other Japanese documentary filmmakers, in contrast to the common American conception of documentary. He writes that, for American documentary filmmakers, especially in the tradition of direct cinema, reality is out in the world, and the filmmaker just captures it. This is the fly-on-the-wall idea — the notion that reality isn’t substantially changed by the filmmaker’s presence. But for the Japanese filmmaker, there’s this intimate interaction with the referent, the subject, whatever (and whoever) is in front of the camera. Here, the film is ultimately the trace of this interactive process with other people, a trace of the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Some parts of my film are more observational, especially with Carmen, where I am (and, ultimately, the film’s spectators are) watching her gather snails, chop wood, make tortillas, and so on. But then there are other parts of the film, where my interaction with the subjects — and especially with Don Juan — becomes central to the scene. Our film developed organically in that way, drawing on both American and Japanese traditions of documentary. But there are also scenes in the tradition of cinéma vérité, where we create a situation and document whatever unfolds.

For example, for the scene in which Carmen talks about her husband who became a martyr for the land rights movement in Chiapas, we knew just a little bit about that story, and we suspected it might be easier for her to tell it to Juan in her native language of Zoque. So we invited Juan to come have a conversation about this thing that had happened. Since I don’t speak Zoque, I wasn’t able to follow the conversation. Saul is a native speaker of Zoque, so while he was recording sound, tears were streaming down his face. He directed me where to film and what to record in this scene, because I couldn’t tell what they were saying. And I didn’t find out until afterward, when he translated for me, that after her husband was murdered, Carmen’s baby died of sadness: “He was waiting for his father, who never came home.” So that scene was not something that just happened, it was a situation that we created and then documented.

Juan is suffering from a hernia, and when he asks for money, he says he needs it to travel to a hospital to get examined for surgery. Were you at all uncomfortable about portraying Juan in this vulnerable situation?

Yes. But we had faith in the film that we were making, in the process of making the film. I don’t feel like it was ultimately exploitative of Don Juan, although I think it could have gone in that direction. One thing that I really felt in making this film, and that I hope comes across, is that Juan and I were negotiating a relationship: in a lot of ways we were using each other to get what we wanted. And maybe Juan told some lies, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think he’s a really honest person. I think he has every right to tell me stories, to try to get things out of me. This is part of our relationship. Also, Juan has seen the film, and he never told us not to include something that we filmed.

I feel okay using the material where Juan appears vulnerable in part because I come off as flawed — I mean the character of me, the director, is just as flawed as Juan’s character in the film. If I weren’t representing myself as a complicated and flawed character, then it would be dubious to represent Juan as flawed or vulnerable. Then I would feel strange about the relationship.

One point of reference that helped me sort this out is Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer. And what she says about journalists I think also applies to documentary filmmakers. One of her points is that the one true fiction in a work of journalism is the character of the journalist. That is, the journalist is usually represented as this pure, virtuous vehicle for communicating Truth to the reader. And I would say the same thing applies to documentary. We know there’s a filmmaker or filmmakers behind every documentary, but it’s rarely brought to the foreground. And when it is recognized, they’re never shown to be complex or flawed characters. Documentary viewers don’t see the difficult parts of the process, or the relationships. In that sense, the character of the documentary filmmaker is also, I think, a fiction, fabricated by the conventions of documentary. Perhaps the major fiction in documentary film. In our film too, in any film, the character of the filmmaker is a fabrication — something constructed through camera-work, sound, and editing. For The Modern Jungle, I allowed the character of Charles Fairbanks to be something other than the impossibly virtuous entity of documentary convention. And so in that way, the character of the director in our film is not a pure fiction, it’s actually quite documentary.

Much of the film shows Juan making these frustrating trips to several different hospitals to get his hernia treated, and to get information about a surgery, but it was unclear at the end if he ever did get the surgery. Was that intentional?

He didn’t get surgery, and that was something that I intentionally left out of the film. He’s not a candidate for surgery, because he has high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and a swollen heart, and he’s almost 70 years old. The doctors are concerned that, were he to get surgery, he wouldn’t rest to let himself heal up, that he’d return to work too soon and make things worse. This diagnosis was from a private clinic (that stood to make a lot of money if they’d operated on Juan), where we took him because the public hospitals would not let us film. For reasons I still don’t understand, the public hospitals gave Juan an endless succession of references to other doctors and specialists, rather than clearly saying that he’s not a candidate for surgery.

We decided not to include that clear diagnosis of why he couldn’t get surgery because, if we had disclosed that, it would have let me off the hook, and I think it would let viewers off the hook too: it releases a lot of the tension in the film. I mean, if he had been a candidate for surgery, and it would have helped him, I would have paid for it. But I think the suspicion that viewers have toward me adds another layer of richness to the film. Like, did he get surgery? If not, why not? It points back to the enormous inequality in our world — this strange world that includes Juan and myself, pyramid schemes and the culture of documentary.


Simon Schatzberg is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. His writing has appeared on Al Jazeera and Fusion.