The Filmmaker’s Secret To Finding Truth In A Documentary by Joe Berlinger

Watch the video interview on Youtube here


Film Courage:  What’s the secret to finding truth when making a documentary? I mean…is there anything that you say or do that helps find it?

Joe Berlinger: We could spend hours and hours and talk about truth in documentaries because I…look…I’m a firm believer that all documentary filmmaking, all media is inherently subjective. You shoot hundreds of hours of footage. Only a couple of hours end up in your final film. There are days you are not there to cover a story. You have to choose a camera angle. Every camera angle communicates a different emotion potentially. You make thousands of editorial decisions.

So what’s guided me is that I’m not looking for the capital truth (capital “T” truth in a situation) because I think the truth is very elusive and subjective depending on from what point of view you are looking at.

What I look for in my films in as emotional truthfulness. An emotional truthfulness about the human condition or the subject that you’re looking at.

Intent to Destroy director Joe Berlinger (right) and his director of photography, Bob Richman (middle), with The Promise director Terry George (left). Photo property of Intent to Destroy Movie

You know, in PARADISE LOST it because clear that these guys were railroaded. But a different filmmaker possibly would have made a different film.

So I think filmmakers who think they are presenting the absolute truth about a particular subject, I have potentially…certain kinds of films, straightforward, history you know I think the more you know hitting the truth whatever that means is possible. But what I’m looking for is the emotional truthfulness of a situation. The truth rises to the top if you allow both sides to have their say. Treat the audience like a jury and not pound a specific message over people’s heads. It has always been the method that I’ve preferred.

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Even in this film (INTENT TO DESTROY), even though it’s a film about denial and genocide, there’s a section of the film in which those who don’t believe that the genocide took place, they’ve been given a chance to air their views and we allow the audience to make up their own minds about it.

So to me that’s what I mean about emotional truthfulness. You air all sides of an issue. Don’t pound a message over the viewers head and you let the truth rise to the top.

In CRUDE, some people were surprised that I allowed the executives to be interviewed and to present their point of view about the case. But I think I trust the audience to come to the right conclusion about the emotional truthfulness of the situation. And sometimes the emotional truthfulness of a situation is not necessarily what you think the film is about. You know for example, in CRUDE the indigenous rainforest dwellers of Ecuador and their American lawyers were making a case and suing Chevron for creating this cancer zone the size of Rhode Island through bad drilling practices.

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Chevron was claiming that this was not the case and the pollution that is there is the responsibility of the state oil company. Some people may think that I was making a film about the absolute truth of that situation. For me, the absolute truth of the situation (the emotional truth of the situation) that I was trying to talk about is that we are destroying the rainforest, that the people who most deserve to be treated well were being treated horribly. And that there were a whole other set of reasons I was making that film, to bring justice to these people. So sometimes the subjective truth of a situation is not always what the filmmaker is necessarily trying to present, at least that’s how I look at it.


Questions for the Viewers:  What thoughts can you add? Do you agree or disagree?



About INTENT TO DESTROY (wording from official site here):

Pulling back the curtain on Genocide censorship in Hollywood due to U.S. government pressure to appease a strategic ally, Intent To Destroy embeds with a historic feature production as a springboard to explore the violent history of the Armenian Genocide and legacy of Turkish suppression and denial over the past century.

Joe Berlinger’s thirteenth feature documentary film captures the cinematic and political challenges of producing a historically meaningful, big-budget feature film in an environment rife with political suppression and threats of retaliation. In 2015, Academy Award-winning director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, In the Name of the Father) took on the challenge of making the first mainstream film about the Armenian Genocide, despite previous failed attempts. Beginning production in 2015 on what George hopes will be the Armenian “Schindler’s List”, he directs The Promise, a sweeping World War I romantic drama set in the heart of the Ottoman Empire during the 1915 Armenian Genocide that wiped out 1.5 million Armenians. Provided unrestricted on-set access, Berlinger followed the production as it shot in Spain, Malta and Portugal, using the on-set behind-the-scenes experience as a lens to explore the reality and complexities of the actual Genocide and its subsequent denial.

Berlinger juxtaposes evocative and beautifully shot scenes from the feature film with actual archival images from the period, along with present day interviews from a variety of experts, allowing the documentary to depict the reality of the atrocities carried out against the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in a haunting and cinematic manner. Additionally, Berlinger uses the present-day film production to provide a framework for a systematic examination of a century of historical perversion by the Turks and those who have an interest in denying the Genocide. Turkish lobbying efforts have shuttered previous American film and literary productions that used the Armenian Genocide as a backdrop, making the release of The Promise the product of nearly 80 years of work and setbacks to bring this story to the big screen as a mainstream Hollywood production. Moreover, since the end of World War I, Turkey has successfully shaped international perception of what most historians consider the first genocide of the twentieth century, largely removing it from international consciousness through lobbying and threats of retaliation…(Read more here via


About Joe Berlinger:

Academy Award and seven-time Emmy nominated and Peabody and Emmy-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger has been a leading voice in nonfiction film and television for two decades. Berlinger’s films include the landmark documentaries BROTHER’S KEEPER, the PARADISE LOST Trilogy, which helped lead to the recent release of the wrongfully-convicted West Memphis Three, and METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, a film that re-defined the rockumentary genre. CRUDE, about oil pollution in the Amazon Rainforest, won 22 human rights, environmental and film festival awards and recently triggered a high profile First Amendment battle with oil-giant Chevron. Five of Berlinger’s documentary features, including his Emmy-nominated 2012 Paul Simon documentary UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, earning three Grand Jury Prize nominations. He has also received multiple awards from the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards.







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