Elke Lehrenkrauss’ film Lovemobil is about the risky life conditions of prostitutes working in caravans outside of towns, mostly in isolated places. It’s also a film about the personal history of some of these women. The film has just won different documentary awards, including a nomination for the important Grimme Award in Germany. It was seen by a couple of juries, and also of course by the commissioning editor of the German public channel NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk).
Right from the beginning it seems evident that some sequences in the film couldn’t have been taken «in reel»; for example, the meetings between clients and the prostitutes. For each attentive spectator it is also evident that some situations were re-enacted. The scandal exploded as a former editing collaborator made the staged aspect public, writing to NDR that the real prostitutes were mostly replaced by actresses.
A huge wave of violent statements subsequently broke out, accusing Lehrerkrauss of a «faked» work. Part of this accusation has come from the NDR itself, screening a reportage on their own channel STRG_F. A large quantity of documentary filmmakers followed up, whose own documentary style is based on the hard capturing of the right moments. Some of them have even had to give up their intended projects, failing to get what they required. Blazing often exaggerated accusations like: «all is staged and scripted»; or attacks on the director’s worthy middle-class view on the prostitute’s reality, completed the media scandal.
Right from the beginning it seems evident that some sequences in the film couldn’t have been taken «in reel»
Lehrerkrauss researched her materials for four years. Now, she has admitted having condensed experiences from different persons into one protagonist and having re-enacted scenes with actors, an explainable strategy facing the real-life prostitutes’ situation, which cannot allow them to offer their mostly hidden existences into an uncontrolled visibility. All concerned juries and critics have or should have estimated this evidence. Elke Lehrerkrauss’ fault, of course, was the permanent hiding of these facts in discussions and statements, even if they are daily practice in documentary production and could easily have been indicated in different ways. Under constant attack, Lehrerkrauss gave back the German Documentary Award.
What was the reason for Lehrerkrauss’ silence? Only speculations can start here. Mostly it could have been through fear that her product of four years of work could have been rejected. This again is based on an evidently missing communication with the responsible chief editor of the NDR, who Lehrerkrauss could only meet personally at one time, in a hasty moment, during these years of production. This missed cooperation at the beginning, then, forced her to further chain denials. This strategical «misunderstanding» again is based on the fact that today, up from the exposé to the finished product, the ordering public institutions request more and more of a dramatic style, which include a transforming impact on the «materials» for easy perception. And these institutions are the nearly exclusive financial supporters for documentary film makers.
In a larger context it seems to be more relevant to understand the real reasons of the highly aggressive manifestations and statements. What is taken into question and under attack is our fragile conception of reality itself. In a mediatized world, documentaries are a main source «to believe in». Authenticity und objectivity are reclaimed, even if everybody knows that even simply by putting a camera on a static tripod and starting filming is an eliminating act, which selects and limits contextualisations. Even speaking about a «subjective» view doesn’t make sense, because there is no objectivity. It will be difficult to deny that our «reality» acceptance is formed by a set of main sources:
a) the repetition of the «reality news» – mostly by the media
b) the acceptance of a fact/reality by surrounding persons, especially friends, first grade authorities and respected persons
c) the integrativeness in the already formed and accepted reality concept (reality image), including trust sets as beliefs and religions
d) the comparison of the presented (new) reality with different sources (media)
Sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers have recently pointed out the growing tendency to live and to think in bubbles. You choose your source, and you stay with it. Who really is comparing influential information? Who is even watching in Chinese or Russian, not to mention Nigerian, Ukrainian or Indonesian sources (as examples)? We «know» and we have already decided to whom we believe. Structurally we are all living in bubbles, and we are surrounded by people telling us it’s not a bubble. No, Baudrillard was not completely wrong. Therefore, wars are still possible between bubbles. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t have a bubble for itself.
Furthermore, we can’t speak about neutral perceptions. Perceptions are filtered and transformed by any type of languaged media form. One of the sad consequences is that some people will not go to see some «documentaries», because they «know» they are not «true». On the other side, the paradox is that a fictional film is also based on a perception of a reality.
«Documenting reality» includes a double misunderstanding. Reality is never given, and the not given «real» is never representable or «documentable». Each film sequence is based on pointed out and overpassed contexts. Each sequence is intentional from the first moment up to further transformations in the editing and the post-production.
Often it is reclaimed: We need to believe, even if we would have difficulties, just to imagine the good laughter of our followers in some hundreds of years – if there are some – looking back to what we have estimated as «reality». But maybe they also don’t know what laughter is any more. We need to believe… Do we? The experienced prostitute Uschi – a «real existing» woman in Lehrerkrauss’ film – answered to the repeated question of a NDR reporter, to whether she never staged her role: «Halloooo? Machen Sie keine Show? (Heeeeey, are you not making up a show?)»
What is taken into question and under attack is our fragile conception of reality itself.
To avoid the challenge of the term «Documentary» some festivals choose the title «Festival of the Real», accepting hybrid forms, including staging and acting, but the problem of a reality conception is only transposed in another costume.
To resume pragmatically: A documentary is a film (!) that we believe is made in the best intention of the director(s) to offer their perception or a «reality» fragment, as such we accept to take it into account for our «reality image», not more, not less. This includes that the conditions and the context of the screenings should be indicated anyway. This accepted, documentation efforts can’t get discredited.
But in a further sense: We need to believe… do we? Can’t we take a documentary as a document to be doubted and at the same time to be stimulated for further questioning? Should we not be careful, while tolerant, and never finish discussions, comparing, or following up? Isn’t culture the essence of these activities? By the way, one of the largest actual challenges is that religions promise to ensure their main narratives as «truth» and make people, who are otherwise living in fear and insecurity, grasp these values as their life bread. This is the real social and political risk today.