Responding to Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema, and his 2017 addendum to that 1999 manifesto, this essay by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation and Command and Control) is part of a four-part series of commissioned writings addressing the question, “What is truth in an age of ‘alternative facts’?”
Werner Herzog is one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a master of both the narrative and documentary form. I have enormous admiration for his work.
But Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration is just one more in a long line of manifestos that have spelled out how art should be created and the truth properly revealed. These manifestos are notable for the certainty with which new rules are proclaimed.
“Let’s go! Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last… We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice,” declared the Futurists in 1909. “To launch a manifesto, you have to want: A. B. & C., and fulminate against 1, 2, & 3,” said the Dadaists in 1916. “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex,” said the SCUM Manifesto in 1967. “The auteur concept was bourgeois romanticism from the very start… I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist,” Dogme said in 1995. “I swear to refrain from creating a ‘work,’ as I regard the instant as more important than the whole.”
All of these manifestos express an element of truth. None of them convey the truth. And like Lessons of Darkness, they contain varying proportions of hot air and bullshit. I doubt that Herzog seriously believes the films of Albert and David Maysles capture only “a superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” The problem with every manifesto, every declaration of high-minded purpose, is that there’s no one way to create art or seek the truth. There are as many valid ways as there are artists. There’s my way, your way, his way, her way, and their way. The inherent conflict between literal and the metaphorical approaches, between the logical and the instinctive, dates back thousands of years to the contradictory impulses of stoicism and mysticism. And as a general rule, declarations of artistic purpose are rarely as interesting, complex, powerful, or haunting as the art itself. The films that Werner Herzog has directed, for almost half a century, amply demonstrate that fact.
Which raises the question: how do you tell the truth in the age of “alternate facts” and “fake news”?
My own approach is to start with the assumption that the work will be imperfect, flawed, and provisional, no matter how much time has been spent on it. The work will inevitably fall short. But it will aim high. And the effort that goes into its creation, the relentless seeking and pushing, not the proudly achieving, will give it some hope of an authentic connection with the reader or viewer.
These days, the difference between cinema verité and documentaries with actors and narration seems trivial. The stylistic choices of artists pale in importance beside the lies and deliberate misinformation being spread every single day for power, control, and profit. At a time when the wealthy are seeking to deny basic health care to the poor, when immigrants are being rounded up and scapegoated and deported, when environmental regulations are being discarded, banking regulations overturned, science denied, racism and sexism promoted, nepotism celebrated, ignorance celebrated, greed and narcissism celebrated, it is the duty of every writer, painter, sculptor, printmaker, filmmaker, and multimedia artist to resist. The lies being promoted today by those in power, the contempt for freedom of speech and dissent and diversity, are no different in spirit from the propaganda of the Soviet Union, from the demands to obey the party line, from the photographs retouched to make Communist officials disappear or reappear, depending on the political mood.
Debates about whose artistic approach is more valid are meaningless and self-absorbed at a time when ruthless people are exploiting the weakest, poorest, most vulnerable members of our society and threatening the survival of the planet. We don’t have the luxury of being perfect or pure, lazy or apathetic, clever or ironic. The artists who don’t question or resist what’s happening right now are complicit. Those of us privileged enough to enjoy a career in the arts have an even greater obligation to be active, engaged, and defiant. We must fight with our work, with the ethic embodied in our work, against the systematic, ingenious mass production of lies.
I guess this turned out to be another manifesto. So be it.