Is dramatising a true story for film such a bad thing if the facts are still uncovered?
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8 Dec 2009 - 11:29 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:26 AM

Journalists are fond of complaining that dramatists “play around with the truth”.

Many a critic will doggedly stick to the principal that in following the facts of a life certain truths will emerge. But consider - all facts cannot have equal weight in a life as in an argument. And anyway, what is it that we learn about a life if it is only facts we are interested in?

Screenwriter Jan Sardi knows these arguments first hand. He won critical accolades and awards for Shine, based on the life of David Helfgott. Recently he penned the screenplay for the hit Mao's Last Dancer from Li Cunxin's best selling memoir about a ballet performer's defection to the US. Directed by Bruce Beresford the film has grossed $14+ million in Australia. Still, Sardi, has been criticised in the press for taking liberties in the construction of his story; with time and the sequence of events.

“I think you have to understand that you have to treat a real life like a fiction,” Sardi says. “There's a danger in putting it that way, because journalists will say you're just making it up. But in order to distil action into two hours you have to give the audience an understanding of why certain things happen.”

Sardi reckons that the traditional hostility between reporters and dramatists derives from the writers need to interpret and the reporters reliance on facts to “get to the truth.”

“I think Shine and Mao's Last Dancer were universal stories because they are about the discovery of your true self,” says Sardi. “What that means is that it poses the three or four questions that all good drama asks. How did I get here? What am I meant to do? How should I live my life? And once someone discovers there true self (in answering those questions) there's a resolution. It's what all good drama is about.”

Sardi is wary of what lies behind a lot of the criticism aimed at disputing the authenticity of movies based on true stories. Sometimes, he says, it is a case of hidden agendas, competing projects and simply regrets, as was the case with Shine. “In life David had a brother, in the movie he didn't. We approached the brother and he did not want to be in the movie, and I thought that was good for the narrative,” he says. Fans of the movie will remember that Helfgott was “re-discovered” in a Perth wine bar, after his decent into illness and obscurity. “The wine bar operator didn't want to be in the movie either.” He adds, pointedly that, it was only after Shine was a hit that the controversy started.

Sardi's style, he says, is to try to get “a life” to conform to dramatic tradition. Of course, for others, like screenwriter Ian David, tackling a true-life story is an opportunity to take chances. “If you're saying that this screenplay is based on history the audience respects that,” says David, who's written the critically acclaimed TV dramas Blue Murder, Three Acts of Murder and The Shark Net, all true-life crime stories. “Audiences cut you a bit of slack in a dramatic sense, they say 'well this bits a bit lumpy but if it were fiction the writer would have smoothed that out'.

“They take a grip on the story that's different. The audience makes allowances. Of course what you are trying to do is make it as dramatic as you can.”

David says that for him, writing a drama based on a true story is forming a pact with the audience. A passionate researcher, David's approach is close to investigative journalism. “That research means something – the events can be verified as strange and weird and what we're trying to do is trying to find explanations for why characters do certain things. It means that the version of events depicted on screen can be defended. It may not be the absolute truth but it is a good version.”

Balibo, written by David Williamson and Robert Connolly, was a hit with critics and performed only modestly at the BO. Some historians and pundits complained about its treatment of the true story its narrative covers – the invasion of East Timor by Indonesian in 1975, and the murder of five Australian journalists. Constructed as a 'buddy-movie' between East Timorese leader Ramos Horta and Australian journalist Roger East, where they travel through the jungle to uncover the fate of the murdered men, Balibo was, its critics say, based on a journey that never happened. “You're not making a documentary,” says Connolly. “Did East and Horta travel together? Yes. Did they have a relationship? Yes. I don't think anyone makes a film without observing the history.”

Connolly agrees with Sardi in that they see drama as a channel to navigate emotions – feelings that are often obscured or left out official history altogether.

“I know and care about the fate of Cambodia not because I ever went into the killing fields, but because I saw a film called the Killing Fields,” Connolly says.

“That's the power of movies.” His commitment to history, he says, is demonstrated in the fact that there was a special website created so punters could look at the facts and then see how these were put to dramatic effect in the film. Balibo screened in Indonesia this week (Tuesday, 1 December). Organised by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club the screening is unusal in that the government's censorship board is yet to rule whether the picture is to be banned or not. The Indonesian government's position on the 'Balibo Five' is that they were killed by accident; Connolly's movie, based on the Coronial inquest, dramatises their deaths as murder. "And we follow that evidence very closely," he says.

Still, there is the potential for megalomania in filmmaking, David says, and that means that any screenwriter undertaking a true story has a kind of contract between art, history and audience. “I think you have to take on the responsibilities of not only telling the truth but also not telling lies.” Which means, he says, making careful and sensitive use of drama; "Can you tell the truth, but not inventing characters or eliminating people who were involved in an event? Yes, I think you can."

Sometimes, says David, it does not matter at all that a film is based on a true story. He uses Downfall as an example: “After seeing it I didn't rush home and check my Hitler books,” he says. “For me there was just a tremendous reservoir there about the way people act when confronted with their terminal days and madness…If you've gone into a complex journey, one into the human psyche and it happens to be based on a few facts it doesn't matter; its not telling lies about the fundamental reasons underneath these characters and their actions.”