Eight seconds in a 110 min. documentary may seem like a trifle, but the “moment” that director Stephanie Soechtig inserted into her film, “Under the Gun” has taken the focus off the message and put it on the messenger.
Executive produced and narrated by Katie Couric, “Under the Gun” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (“An essential primer on the rise of gun violence in America,” praised Variety) before being broadcast in May on the Epix network. The film’s marketing tagline is “In the gun debate, truth is the ultimate weapon,” which ironically backfired when Soechtig was found to have engaged in a questionable edit. At one dramatic point in the documentary, Couric asks representatives of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” For eight seconds, the VCDL members say nothing; their glances seeming to indicate they are stumped for an answer.
Last week, the VCDL produced audio of the actual interview that showed its representatives did answer the question immediately and that Soechtig had inserted “b-roll” of the subjects sitting quietly between questions. To some, this gave an intentionally false appearance that they were struggling to formulate an answer to the question.
In an interview with Variety, Soechtig stood by the editing choice and explained her rationale for making it: “This felt like a really crucial time to stop down and allow the audience a moment to let that question sink in.” In a separate statement, Couric responded to the growing controversy: “When VCDL members recently pointed out that they had in fact immediately answered this question, I went back and reviewed it and agree that those eight seconds do not accurately represent their response….I regret that those eight seconds were misleading and that I did not raise my initial concerns more vigorously.”
No matter where you stand on gun control, those contested eight seconds violated a covenant documentary filmmakers make with their audience that they are being presented with a factual record. For gun control advocates, it meant that whatever merits the documentary had have been tainted. For gun rights proponents, it gave further ammunition to their worst suspicions and accusations about media bias.
Documentaries have undergone an image overhaul over the past two decades. Films such as “Hoop Dreams,” “My Brother’s Keeper,” “The Thin Blue Line” and “Roger & Me,” were crossover hits that savvy producers marketed not as tired documentaries but as vital nonfiction features in which fiction film techniques were employed to make truth as compelling and entertaining as fiction.
But, as Johnny Cash once sang, what is truth? Michael Moore was charged with manipulating events for his breakthrough film, “Roger & Me.” “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival after protests over the film’s insupportable “science.” The filmmakers behind the phenomenally popular miniseries “Making a Murderer” have been accused of leaving out facts detrimental to their thesis that there was a miscarriage of justice in the case of convicted killer Steven Avery.
Wolf Koenig, a disciple of the cinema verite—or observational--school of documentary once said, “Every cut (in a film) is a lie. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth.” Or, as Roger Ebert originally defended Michael Moore: “Parts of "Roger & Me" are factual. Parts are not. All of the movie is true.”
“Under the Gun” is a reminder of how film can be manipulated to evoke a response and that audiences need to be vigilant and critical viewers. It was created to trigger a much needed discussion about gun violence in America. With those eight seconds, Soechtig only succeeded in shooting herself in the foot.