Is a documentary still a documentary if no original material has been shot for it? Some intriguing new releases comprising “found” YouTube clips and other online video ephemera suggest it definitely is. The resulting films can be profound and disturbing comments on how our obsession with online video is creating subcultures where myths and legends are shared and amplified. What’s really true in the “real” world doesn’t matter.
Dan Schoenbrun’s A Self-Induced Hallucination delves into the phenomenon of Slenderman, a shadowy fictional figure that started as an internet meme and is linked to some very real violence, notably the attempted murder of a 12-year-old girl in Wisconsin in 2014. Making a film about Slenderman isn’t an original idea: there’s a feature coming out in August, and HBO released the documentary Beware the Slenderman in 2016. Schoenbrun’s film is clever in being about the phenomenon itself, featuring an array of YouTube videos where freaked-out contributors riff on Slenderman’s significance in their life. Some have drunk the Kool-Aid and see its influence everywhere, delivering rapturous whispered monologues. Others are sceptics, or are disturbed by the reaction to Slenderman rather than the character himself.
Making a film for the internet that’s about videos about an internet phenomenon may sound too much to stomach. The pleasure, however, is in its self-referentiality – as the title suggests, it uses direct testimony of Slenderman vloggers to create a tapestry of delusion and collective mania. Appropriately for a film composed of video uploaded to the public domain, it’s free to watch and share in its entirety online. It will itself contribute to the myths around Slenderman.
The film is interesting not only as a historical document of internet communities, but also for the innovative format of placing strangers’ YouTube videos one after another in quick succession. This process transforms each of them, making them seem more profound and definitely more scary. Although there’s an internal logic to how he’s constructed the film, which loosely tracks the progress of the Slenderman murder trial, Schoenbrun doesn’t comment on the videos. We’re left to wonder about what the juxtapositions in this montage mean.
Another new film uses a similar technique, to no less horrifying ends. The Pain of Others, directed by archive specialist Penny Lane, is about Morgellons, a mysterious disease that may or may not exist, but certainly feels real to its sufferers. Calling themselves “Morgies”, they’ve also taken to YouTube, narrating the pain of their rashes, the crawling sensations on their skin, and the long fabric strands that appear to stick out of their bodies. Most viewers will approach this documentary expecting to see a cast of cranks, and while Lane’s main characters do come across as eccentric and often dreamy, there really do appear to be long fibres coming out of their skin.
Most viewers will look for a rational explanation, but that’s not the point. Lane has called it an act of empathy, which we are led to feel by being directly addressed by sufferers. What matters to them is showing the real pain, which explodes at times into something almost rapturous. In common with A Self-Induced Hallucination, these are YouTube videos made by and for a cultish community featuring strangers egging each other on from their own bubble. Like Schoenbrun, Lane has also attempted to reach online viewers as the first point of release – The Pain of Others is available to stream on Fandor in the US and Canada, and will come to other countries later in the year. It will screen in London in September.
Many film-makers have attempted to make documentaries about the internet, but what marks out these films is their deep digging into the psychology of online video communities, and in particular a suspicion of experts, be they doctors or members of the mainstream media. Both these films do that without explicitly commenting on it through voiceover or other clear direction. This feels like a mini-trend in documentary. More pointed, and more politically significant, is Our New President, in which Maxim Pozdorovkin deploys Russian user-generated video to suggest Vladimir Putin has weaponised fake news to create a domestic online army sceptical of everything, but fiercely loyal to him (it hasn’t been released yet, but the initial short is available on YouTube).
Elsewhere, arguably the most extreme use of YouTube video in recent documentaries is in Fraud, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s brilliant conceptual film in which he takes hours of found video footage of an everyday American family and re-edits it to create a fictional crime story. When first shown at festivals in 2016, Fraud provoked anger as well as admiration for manipulating the “truth” of user-generated video that didn’t belong to Fleischer-Camp, and for doing it without the full participation of the family. The family are now on board and supportive – the film is being released digitally on 17 August – but as with all of these documentaries, there are fascinating ethical questions around editorial ownership of video uploaded to YouTube for one purpose and then reused for another in a documentary.
In the case of The Pain of Others, Lane has said that her participants weren’t interested in her film even when she sent it to them, and this seems typical – how the sufferers’ videos are used after they’re viewed by other Morgies isn’t something they seem to care about. As with the videos in A Self-Induced Hallucination, they are designed for one enclosed community to approve of, respond to and mythologise. What happens next, in terms of their use in mainstream documentary, is of little importance.