The upcoming 87th Academy Awards is once again rich with “based on a true story” films.  Are we seeing a trend?  I ask because this was the case last year as well.  Mark Hughes in a Forbes article called our attention to the fact that seven of the nine Best Picture nominees for the 2014 Academy Awards were based on true stories: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street.  This year, audiences are offered “true stories” in four of the eight Best Picture nominees: American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory Of Everything.

Brian Truitt in his USA Today article about the film Boyhood noted that “true stories appealed to the voting contingent for the Academy Awards this year…” so maybe this is a trend.  According to Hughes who did the research to inform us that, “in the previous 25 years of Oscar history (meaning, not including 2013′s nominees) with 143 Best Picture nominees, only 40 were based on real-life events…”

The “based on…” is a complicated category of film story, one that lives somewhere between the narrative and documentary forms of visual storytelling.  These however, are narrative films but when they say things like “based on a true story” or “based on true events” or “inspired by a true story” they complicate our spectatorship and put “fact-checkers” on the alert.  Let me say it another way, these are not documentary films, and should not be held to those standards, but what are their standards?  What are our expectations?  One thing we have to consider is that these may well be films that don’t need to bear the burden of presenting “accurate” information in every scene or shot, but who is to decide?

Whatever the case, it has sparked a rich debate and questions will inevitably get raised about accuracy as Cara Buckley points out in her aptly titled article “When Films and Facts Collide in Questions: ‘Selma Questions Are Nothing New for Historical Films.”  But before we try to define the rules for this “in-between” form of visual story lets look at the basic framework, narrative versus documentary.

The narrative form of filmmaking is the most popular worldwide. It is the “once upon a time” of film stories, the “guess what happened today” kind of visualized tale.  Oxford Dictionary defines narrative in this way: “A spoken or written account of connected events.”

In David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s book Film Art: An Introduction they offer a clear description of the narrative form.  “We can consider a narrative to be a chain of events linked by cause and effect and occurring in time and space.” Simple right?  Documentary films are also stories but they are non-fiction stories.

The documentary film is understood by its category to be a “factual” or “truthful” presentation of an already existing, real-life person, event, or series of events that expose a particular truth or set of truths as collected and organized by the filmmakers.  Often when a filmmaker wants to make a documentary they have a passion for a particular person, story or subject but understandably do not know everything they need to know to make the film a successful one. Spike Lee makes both narrative and documentary films and is clear about his process when telling both kinds of stories. “ You have to do the research. If you don’t know about something, then you ask the right people who do.”

While there are several ways and combinations of ways that this factual story is achieved, here are some of the main types described in Film Art:

  • Compilation –  putting together already existing films and images.
  • Interview or Talking Head – listening to people tell their version of what happened.
  • Direct Cinema – records just what happened without the filmmaker doing anything to change it other than put a camera in the middle of it all.
  • Cinéma Vérité – French for cinema truth.

There are filmmakers who work mainly in one or the other category and those that shift from one to the other and those that straddle both.  Mira Nair describes her transition from one form of film story to the other.  “For seven years, I made films in the cinema verite tradition – photographing what was happening without manipulating it. Then I realised I wanted to make things happen for myself, through feature films.”

The good news is that filmmakers are doing the things I’m trying to convince my students to understand as routine for artists – read and do research.  In Jennie Yabroff’s “7 Biographies Behind the 2015 Academy Award Nominees” she notes that “several of the frontrunners are direct adaptations of books about real people, and many more looser accounts of the lives and time of historical figures.”

So, as spectators what to do, how do we “read” these films?  Is judging the “accuracy” part of our task?

One suggestion, when we are really not sure how to judge the accuracy of the information being presented in these films, is to think of them as narratives.  All films come from stories anyway, real or imagined and for the sake of drama, many changes are made in the process.  Pablo Picasso says it best. “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

Believe it or not I use the work of Carl Jung in my classes when I talk about the significance of art, in this case film.  Just this week I offered this quote to my students and find it worth contemplating here.  “Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking. The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one- sidedness of the present.”

I hope you enjoy this year’s films, and if by chance some of us learn something along the way, not merely a “fact” or series of facts, but something about the human condition, then the film has done its job.