NONFICTION seldom means completely real. But that's a debate as old as cinema.

Last month, I found myself a dissenting voice on one of the summer's acclaimed films. ''Bloody Nose. Empty Pockets.''

At first glance, the movie appears to be a documentary about  the final days of a Las Vegas-area dive bar called Roaring '20s. But the directors, the brothers Bill and Turner Ross, never reveal that the setup was contrived.

Although the bar's patrons are real people, hanging out without a script, they were in effect cast by the directors, with the expectation [implicit or explicit] that they would behave as they would in that real situation. The actual Roaring 20s bar, which wasn't closing, was near New Orleans.

To the movie fans the deception is forgivable. ''Reviews hung up on documentary veracity are missing the point,'' tweeted my friend  Scott Tobias, who also contributes to The New York Times, adding, ''Authenticity and artifice coexist all the time in movies, and this film proves something special can come out of deliberately mingling the two.''

I don't disagree. In a sense, nearly all films balance competing factors : the camera lens, which carries at least the promise of capturing unmitigated reality; the situations, real or manufactured, that take place while that camera is rolling, the decidedly nonobjective people controlling what is shot; and additional manipulations - of editing, effects and and music - after shooting.

Critics tend to hand-wave deceptions when they like the results and to count them against a film if they don't. Debates about the virtues of fakery have triggered as long as cinema has existed, and it's worth taking a look at two ostensibly nonfiction films to understand the issue at play.

Robert J Flaherty remains best known for ''Nanook of the North'' [1922], a pioneering work both of cinematic ethnography and of suspect nonfiction filmmaking - an ostensible introduction to the lives of  Indigenous inhabitants of Northern Canada for which Flahery's Inuiot collaborators helped stage scenes.

Flaherty's later ''Man of Aran'' [1934], a portrait of life on the Aran Islands off Ireland's western coast, is worthy of similar skepticism. 

Still, its goals are poetic and expository : Real or staged, ''Man of Aran'' is simply one of the medium's most dazzling pictorial experiences, and confronted with the extraordinary contrast of its black-and-white photography - as waves pound the rocky coast in the violent weather of the finale - it is simply difficult to care about how the film was planned.

These are real people in a real boat, about to be swallowed by cresting waters or crashed against the cliffs.

The Essay continues into the future. The World Students Society thanks author Ben Keningsberg.


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