April 02, 2012

Tabloid: Sex in Chains

This post will probably go up there with Medieval Lesbianism as one of this sites greatest hits: the post is going to disappoint, but that's because it really doesn't live up to the title. Point 1 of Journalistic ethics is to fulfil what you promise in the title and yet again this blog has completely and utterly failed, my job application to the Sun remains in the Editor's draw, locked away. But apart from my missed career opportunity: you are probably wondering why the title exists. The title refers to a film- Tabloid- which the BBC have just put out on the iplayer (for UK viewers see here) and which came out last year. The film was made by one of my favourite documentary makers- Erroll Morris- and tells the story of beauty queen who allegedly kidnapped a Mormon, took him to a remote part of England, chained him up and repeatedly raped him. That at least is the story that his friends told: her story says that he consented, that they escaped Mormon tyranny and went to a remote cottage to have plenty of sex and enjoy each other's company before he was kidnapped back by the Mormons. The British Press were intrigued and got involved. The story died out- until that is the same woman recently had her dog cloned.

Why does this matter you might be asking- I mean apart from the opportunity to put a title up that involves the phrase 'Sex in Chains' and thus get two dozen thousand google hits- why am I writing this article. Well Morris's film is really interesting in that it doesn't do two things. Morris never comes down and tells us whose version of the truth is right: he explicitly avoids saying that the Mormon view is correct or that Joyce's view is correct, he doesn't comment. Secondly he doesn't interview the Mormon: he was unable to get that interview but its crucial that he doesn't interview him, because we are unable therefore to make any judgement on what happened. Morris isn't telling us what happened- and he presents us with a partial version of the truth, we don't hear from one of the main participants. Therefore we come out of this film aware that this is not a film about truth: its a film about story and the stories we tell each other and the role of journalism within those stories. This is amongst Morris's greatest films because of that- well known for letting the interviewee speak to the camera and focussing on their account, this film takes this perspective to the ultimate conclusion: unlike in previous films like The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War, there is no historical narrative to pin this film into. Either version or a mixture between the two might be true- we just don't and can't know.

Instead what is there? There is just a set of stories. Joyce has her story about the Mormons and their brainwashing and the press have their stories about interviewing Joyce and the Mormons. Neither story is neccessarily true- and yet we and the journalists only have Joyce's and other's recollections of events to go on: we don't know but equally the journalists can't know too. The journalists are interested in story not in truth- that's as expected- but this is why in part they are, you can't get the truth, you can print the news. There is a deeper issue here though- because I think we are invited to compare Morris's methods of producing this story to the newspapers. Both he and they are neccessarily partisan but Morris allows the particpant to frame their own narrative- he edits it but it is their words. The journalists reinterpreted Joyce's words and redrafted her statements. There is an issue here about fidelity to the stories we tell- the role of journalists not being to find an impossible truth, but to tell the lies coming from the closest observer.