Overview: An oddball is obsessed with building his legend as Canada’s first big action star by acting in the films that he writes, produces, films, and directs. The Orchard; 2015; 88 Minutes.
Truth, Fact, and Fiction: Reportedly, after watching the film Catfish at its first Sundance screening, Morgan Spurlock approached the attending crew of the film to congratulate them on what he called “the best fake documentary [he’d] ever seen.” This is the anecdote that came to mind after Kung Fu Elliot had settled in my mind. I had to wonder where Spurlock, who. with his hit film Supersize Me, once laughably convinced an entire nation that a single month of a fast food diet nearly killed him, would measure Kung Fu Elliot on the scale of documentary deception. I wondered, if they were to be injected with truth serum, which of these three documentary crews would confess to their own dishonest intent. What’s more: I’m not sure to what degree I mean for this diagnosis to serve as a criticism.
Sometimes, Deception is Welcome: Kung Fu Elliot begins, innocently enough, as another tale of a stumbling, sorry hero passionately chasing a quickly fading falling star (something along the lines of Anvil: The Story of Anvil). At first, Elliot “White Lightning” Scott is charming in his awkward and unearned self-assurance. He’s likeable. Perhaps even inspirational. After the first few minutes spent with him, his clumsy ambition becomes comedic. By the second act, however, his exploits become so ill-advised and clearly hopeless that the film starts to feel cruel and judgmental, a cinematic act of bullying. So when Elliot’s self-delusion proves symptomatic of some larger clinical psychological issue, some form of deluded and hurtful narcissism, it’s a welcome excuse for our having laughed at him just before. And when the film allows its own fibs shortly thereafter, it only serves to take us farther down that necessary path.
Omission is Dishonest: To clarify, I don’t mean to assert that Kung Fu Elliot is an outright lie. There is no reason to believe that the entire construct is a fabrication, but there’s also no reason to believe that Directors Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau didn’t have access to the big tone-shifting revelation until roughly the last week of their two year filming stretch, which is what the film’s form and construction would have you believe. That information was knowingly back-pocketed until the right moment. Have whatever debate you would like regarding whether omission qualifies as deceit, but this sort of withholding certainly doesn’t constitute an act of honesty in the language of documentary film. It’s a calculation to support a narrative.
Creating Truth is Dishonest: I’ve written before in support of the licensure of documentary filmmakers to interfere with the truth of their subject in the right circumstance. In the climactic sequence of Kung Fu Elliot, a member of the film crew speaks around the camera to help Elliot’s longtime girlfriend Linda catch him in a lie. In narrative terms, Linda is the perfect foil for Elliot. In a fictional film, she wouldn’t need the film’s help in this exchange. In a documentary film, she probably never should be offered the film’s help in this exchange. This is particularly egregious considering that the cameramen have permitted themselves to silently film Elliot’s unfaithful debauchery in the chapters leading up to this one. Their interrupting at this chosen moment only works to make the story easier to tell. It does not add real value for the audience. In the attempt to elevate the dramatic value, Bauckman and Belliveau have cheapened the textual value of their film.
Overall: While amusing and certainly interesting, there are too many apparent instances of naked manipulation in Kung Fu Elliot to consider it a valuable text of psychological observation or a successful cultural case study. I did not trust this documentary. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this movie.