Overview: Home video footage captures a family dealing with mounting debt, burning their house down in an act of insurance fraud, and fleeing to Canada. Memory/Rough House/Grasshopper Film; 2016; 52 minutes.

I Give Up: Fraud is an impossible film. It is impossible to succinctly and fairly explain Fraud without doubling back and looping your description and complaints and praises into a knot of self-entrapment. It is impossible to assign a singular reading to Fraud without feeling as though you have sold short another important rich layer of the film. It is impossible to compare Fraud to any other film. And, most frustrating for me right now, it is impossible to write a review of Fraud.

I even tried to begin with a templated standard review prompt. “Fraud, the new [insert genre or category] film from Dean Fleischer-Camp…,” but typing this out, I quickly realized that I have no idea what to place in the variable bracket. It’s not really a documentary, it’s not really a narrative thriller, and it’s not really found footage, or at least, it’s footage so literally found that it is entirely different from what we think of as found footage in terms of film. It’s not really a combination of any of those things either, and calling it such leaves too much space uncovered.

But hey, that shouldn’t be a problem. Call it an “experiment in form.” On paper, Fraud certainly seems to qualify as that, and experiments in form account for some of my all-time favorite films and filmic exercises. So, that would explain my smitten-if-confused reaction to this one. But then, even that feels insincere, given how deliberate and confident Fraud is in its inventive delivery. There’s something too assured (perhaps even too abrasive) about the way Fraud is presented. Trust everyone who tells you that you have never seen a movie like this one before, because that really is true. But Fraud isn’t really curious in its pioneering, or asking a question the way that an experiment definitionally has to. Fraud is a movie that knows its goal, and it knows that it’s achieving it, even if no other film has ever attempted that goal.

It goes further than The Blair Witch Project‘s attempted (and, in some cases, sustained) illusion of reality and its organic unprofessional footage employed to obfuscate the fictional element in a fictional narrative, or La Jetee‘s use of non-fictional images to thread an emotional narrative. In the first case, it should be noted that Fraud concedes its fictional element up front. All marketing materials, even Cleveland International Film Festival’s single paragraph synopsis, explain in clear terms Fleischer-Camp’s novelty conceit (that I’ll get to eventually), which means if we are to meet Fraud on its own terms, which I believe every reviewer and review should do with every film, we have to start by accepting that it is not trying to trick us. Rather, it must be trying to speak to us honestly.

So how do you parse honesty out of a documentary about a crime that didn’t happen constructed only of real footage of events that did happen, or a richly thematic fictional thriller with razor sharp social commentary and no actors, that’s glued together out of non-fiction footage? How do you trust the story and message of a movie that is, from the outset, from its title even, trying to defraud you?

We’ve done this hundreds of times. We’ve discussed plenty of movies together. We can figure this out…

It’s Just a Movie: Gary is the fictional lead of Fraud‘s story. Or at least he’s pilot of it, the one most frequently using his family’s standard cameras to record their shopping trips, vacations, crimes, and getaway. Gary’s family is the quintessential white, middle-class American family. Gary has a wife and two lively kids—one daughter, one son—who are with him or near him in every scene, and a nice house with a nice yard in North Carolina. The family likes Ed Hardy, megastores, and Apple products. They are the “modern consumers.” Which quickly goes a long way to explain the phone calls and letters received by Gary and his wife regarding their mounting debts. As the collector calls get more aggressive and the letters more bothersome, as measured by Gary’s wife’s face as she reads them, Gary and his wife cling to their consumerism so desperately that they continue their ceremonious shopping trips with their children, while putting into place an elaborate scheme to collect an insurance buyout on their house, filming each step of the way as if to create a “how-to” video series.

The effect is one of disarming. This format makes the turn of the film uniquely chilling, a burning house turned into a jovial conversation of toned down voices, the kids chirping in admiration, a sort of familial capitalist sociopathy. From then on, the inclusive positional perspective makes the family’s cold detachment from their crime all the more overwhelming. The indications of their being found out while enjoying their fraud-sponsored vacation and their subsequent reaction—sideways glances from the parents followed by shots of the windshield traveling to the next town in inclement weather—make for the kind of humanized and engaging theater often lost in more straightforward crime films.

And all the while, as they move with unnerving criminal poise past police, flashing emergency lights, and congested border crossings, the family always seems to be shopping and selling. Not just their straight cash car purchase or their first-in-line fugitive attendance of an Apple release event. In the background and foreground of Fraud, there exists an endless pattern of stacked cash, TV commercials, the family’s phone scrolling. A scene which finds the couple at Virginia Beach sees Gary letting his camera wander to in pursuit of bikini-clad strangers, a voyeurism which puts his at-first charming, lensed appreciation for his wife’s figure, a recurring-to-the-point-of-uncomfortable shot setup in Fleischer-Camp’s film, into a more troublesome context. Gary, we discover, is comparatively shopping his appreciation for his wife.

It’s this sort of nuanced storytelling, character illustration, and theme building that conceit-driven movies typically can’t find the time, angle, or need for. Fraud does though, and it’s all the better movie for it.

Except It Is Not a Movie: Gary isn’t fictional at all. Gary is quite real. So is his wife. And his kids. They exist in the real world that we exist in. The things we see in the film, well, in a sense, they all happened.

If you don’t know or haven’t read the backstory for this film (which lists celebrated filmmakers Jody Hill and David Gordon Green as well as A-list actor Danny McBride as its producers), I am about to share it, which some, I think, might see as a SPOILER. (Though, again, I think the film and its marketing want you to know the conceit, so I’m not sure this spoiler warning matters, but all the same.)

In the late 2000s, Dean Fleischer-Camp discovered Gary’s YouTube channel, back when the content sharing site was in its toddler stage. The channel hosted hundreds of hours of innocent video—footage of the family shopping, the family vacationing, the family doing normal family things, but not committing a crime.

Infatuated with the content (and its volume), Fleischer-Camp hesitantly committed to turning the footage into a documentary-style film, and the family gave their consent. But Fleischer-Camp and his apparently madman editor Jonathan Rippon eventually created a documentary about a series of events centered around a crime that never happened.

Knowing this production history opens a flood of necessary conversations about the film. First, one has to be admire the high marks of cinema discovered or created by this unconventional conceit, that a movie with no actors can still present what feels like amazing performances, and that a movie with no script can still end with a profound, The Graduate-esque shot of a silent, solemn expression that sets the theme and events afire with existential implications.

Second, given that the film itself is an admitted lie (I guess they all are really, but this one in a different sense), can we trust the honesty of its explanation of the lie? Everything I read before the film suggested that the footage was chronologically edited but un-altered. There’s a lot of room for interpretive flexibility there. I’d bet that the bill collector phone calls were added. I’m certain that a Warning poster of the couple is not something that existed during their filming vacations, and I’m pretty sure the dates on the bottom of the screen incorrectly place Hurricane Sandy, which the family finds themselves driving through at some point, suggesting that the chronological order of events is an artifice. And, does that even matter?

The CIFF page for Fraud describes the film as a “thought-provoking treatise on how easy it is for our online lives to be exploited and manipulated.” And yes, sure, that’s as easy a place to start as any, but a lot of cognitive and analytical ground has to be covered from there to meet Fraud in the territory it wants to be met.

Some might think that the manipulative conceit dilutes the thematic message. Are the implied diagnoses of sickness in our consumer-culture and social-media-obsessed society disqualified by their having to be crafted into an untrue narrative? Or are they more supported by the very existence of the massive pool of root footage? Gary’s family recorded hundreds of hours and shared it through social media, after all, which seems to be stronger evidence of an infatuation of being seen on social media than anything we see in the film. And they also recorded shopping, the Apple events, the car buying, presumably the bills and debts, the trips to Wal-Mart, the unboxings, the package arrivals. For these obsessions to be deemed unhealthy, do they need to culminate into a criminal expression or is the fictional criminal expression just a baited hook to get us to observe the very real—and, viewed outside of the context of the film, very normalized—obsessions.

Overall: For a 52-minute film, Fraud presents a lot of bold questions: questions about its story, about film as a storytelling form, and about the world in which we live. They aren’t easy questions to answer. Some of them aren’t even easy questions to ask. Since I saw the film, I keep wishing I could talk to Dean-Fleischer to try to get a grip on these questions, but I’m not sure if that would help, hurt, or affect my understanding of the film at all.

Because I can’t pursue these questions without opening more questions, a sort of Fibonacci sequence of confusion, I can’t tell if Fraud is a masterpiece of filmmaking or a straight up con job selling a non-existent jewel hiding within the emperor’s new avant-garde clothes. But I can say that if it is a con job, if we are the ones being defrauded, it’s a victimization to which film fans should willfully and blissfully submit.

Other folks, perhaps not so much. Early festival reports have seen viewers angry at the director, directly refuting his sincerity, calling him a “con artist” and a “liar.” My CIFF crowd was equal measures perplexed, frustrated, and even angry (with a few attendees, like myself, somewhat in awe-filled shock). As much as I love this film, it’s hard to say how scaleable this story is, in terms of distribution and appeal.

People don’t like to be victimized or lied to by their movies. Most also don’t like to be lectured to by movies, or challenged to spend hours or days or a thousand words trying to figure the movie out. People mostly like to consume movies as products. Like an iPhone, or a new car. That’s what people like. That’s what some want in their lives—at any cost.

Grade: A

The Cleveland International Film Festival promotes artistically and culturally significant film arts through education and exhibition to enrich the life of the community. You can purchase tickets, sign up for membership, or donate at www.clevelandfilm.org.

Featured Image: Memory/Rough House/Grasshopper Film