TRUTH, LIES & CONSEQUENCES
From Plato to Pinter, many artists have used their art as a platform to comment on the relationship between lies and truth. Our film investigates the history of Oz Almog and Vladimir Dvorkin and the misconceptions and questions surrounding the nature of their relationship.
"Artists are Cheaters" - a 5 minute Bonus Material Short Film
"Don’t doubt me, don’t doubt my stories. Give me your finger, give me your arm. Stick it in my wound and you’ll be convinced that what I’m telling or what I am about is real.”
Truth Is Elusive
Everyone involved in "Portrayal" were searching for an elusive truth. No one knew the real story as everyone was holding something from the other. The film was an investigation into a history with unreliable narrators.
“Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realizing that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.“
George Haber Questions Roman
George Haber, former director of the Vienna Jewish Museum, was a little suspect of who we were and why a bunch of Canadians were so interested in such an old exhibition. He asked us how we learned about the exhibition and what we were doing here all the way from Canada. This was Roman’s first interview investigating a topic he wondered about since he was a child. It’s wild to watch him come of age through the entirety of the film as he faced the people who haunted him in his imagination his whole life. We were all pretty nervous that we would be found out after this interview. George died shortly after we interviewed. We really wished he could see the final film. We wonder if he ever gave us a second thought.
This is Roman at the Jewish museum of Vienna just after an interview with the former director, George Haber, who has no idea the true identity of Roman and how he is related to the“Him, Too?” exhibition that Haber commissioned in the late 90’s.
Withholding the Whole Truth
The ongoing theme of truth, lies & consequence that runs through the film is most present in Roman’s journey to Israel to see his family and involve them in a story that they did not understand the full scope of.
When Roman contacted his family in Israel to be in the film he was making about his grandfather they were happy to participate at first. Especially because it meant that Roman was coming to visit them in Israel. What he did not tell them was that he was obsessed with Oz Almog and that he would be focusing his investigation on the questionable and secret relationship between Oz and his grandfather. Roman feared that if he told them the whole story they would not want to be a part of the film.
This is a scene in the film where Roman started to reveal the true nature of his interest. It is clear that his uncle did not want to talk about it. It was so intense that our field producer and camera person did not want to film. As you can see, our director Billie Mintz had no problem jumping in the fire (and the frame) to get the story we came to tell.
The Confessions of a Documentary Filmmaker
By Billie Mintz
Oz Almog is an Israeli artist and the antagonist of my film “PORTRAYAL”. In 2018, I travelled to Vienna to meet him for the first time and to film his initial interview. Our first meeting was important and its success or failure (along with his agreement to allow me to make a film about him) would determine whether or not the film could be made. At first, I was starstruck. He was a celebrity to me; I had already extensively researched his work and had intimate knowledge of his past and artistic practices. Oz was unaware of the depth of my knowledge of him and had a limited and carefully curated understanding of the full scope of the film I was making. He only knew the story I was telling him. Based on our conversations, Oz believed that he was the protagonist of a documentary on his life and career. Although that was true, he was unaware that he was also the antagonist of an even more thrilling plot unfolding around him. Portrayal follows the true protagonist, Roman, grandson of painter Vladimir Dvorkin, a former and estranged colleague of Almog’s. It is only when Roman confronts him that I reveal the true plot of the film to an unsuspecting Oz. Portrayal is a detailed investigation into Oz Almog and the questionable authorship of his artwork.
When journalists go undercover they sometimes stretch the truth, conceal their true identity, and even have to lie to get their story. “Deceptive journalism”, although sometimes necessary, is an ethical and legal quagmire that needs to be properly navigated. For journalists covering high stake stories, utilizing deceptive practices to obtain information is a decision that can lead to the demise of their careers and in the most extreme instances, their lives. In the case of Portrayal, the truth I was seeking was not important to public interest (it wasn’t necessarily a crime or grave injustice that Oz committed), so it would not be ethical for me to lie. It wasn’t that I was lying to Oz - I just wasn’t telling him everything. I had to withhold the whole story in order to get him to be a willing participant. Before filming, I was warned by the broadcaster and my rightfully worried commissioning editor to go through CBC’s journalistic standards. She was nervous about the potential lawsuits and defamation that could occur from this contentious story. Everything had to be by the book because legal retaliation was imminent. I wasn’t undercover - Oz knew who I was. I didn’t conceal my identity in any way. If he were to research me or my films, he would know that I have made a career of investigative journalism that exposes injustices. I always wondered why someone who had admittedly never let a journalist in his studio before wasn’t suspect to my interest in him - especially if he had something so big to hide. That’s when I started questioning the truth of the story I was investigating. I went into the investigation with an open mind. The truth needed to be verified by Oz and not just accepted as fact without his input. The film’s protagonist, Roman, is a young man coming of age through emotional turmoil and heavily influenced by his dead grandfather’s questionable plan to expose Oz and reveal the true painter of the work. This in itself made him a somewhat unreliable narrator.
At times I suspected that Roman’s account of history was not the full truth. Other times, I believed Oz had forgotten the truth and had even convinced himself of the lie that he was telling. I became entrenched in their relationships between truth and lies and the thin line between the two. I, more than anyone, was riding this thin line with them. “If you tell a lie enough times you will believe it to be true”, wrote Hitler in his manifesto, Mein Kempf. Oz would gleefully quote the original author, Joseph Goetel to me during our interviews which was strange as his mother was a Holocaust survivor. While I filmed, I would join his charade and probe the unspeakable as much as I could, asking him risky questions that could expose myself in order to get some answers from him without him knowing what I was really asking. At times I thought he knew and was just playing me along, a willing participant in the telling of a really good story that he himself was lead character and mastermind of. It was a masterful dance - learning how to speak the unspeakable while continual questioning who knew what and who was leading who.
Filmmakers need to be comfortable with manipulating and being manipulated by the truth. Storytelling itself is the master con. The subjects, the audiences, and even the filmmakers are led along a certain trajectory to produce the greatest impact. Filmmakers withhold information and even take people down false roads to deliver the goods. When we watch final edits of films, the story we see is not always representative of the events that occurred. This is why people are distrustful of documentary filmmakers. The distrust in the profession is not unfounded. And here I was, a willing perpetrator of this mistrust, catching my prey in a web of lies like a narrative predator. We were all manipulating each other with the intention of telling a good story. None of us were innocent. We all had the proverbial blood on our hands.
I still remember the moment I was in Oz's studio and became fully conscious of what I was doing there. The realization that the man I was interviewing didn’t understand that he was being investigated. I began to question my character at that moment. I woke up in the dream when I was mid interview. This man thought I was representing him and his accolades and really I was giving him enough rope to incriminate himself for the sake of a good story. Was I a good person? This question would haunt me through the entire production as I knowingly let Oz lead me down the path of his own demise. I couldn’t help myself. Every lie he told drew me further in knowing that the recording of the falsehood would further seal his fate and ensure I had a good story. I started seeing a therapist. I became paranoid. I even got sick with anxiety. One time I went to Vienna on my own and Oz wanted to meet outside of the studio before any further filming occurred. He told me he had something to discuss with me. I didn’t go. I thought he had discovered the true nature of my intentions and was going to retaliate. He had threatened me a number of times that if I fucked with him he would hurt me. At that point, it all came crashing down on me. I didn't have the capacity to continue. I spent five days hiding in my apartment with fever, afraid to go outside, when I was supposed to be filming. The truth of my intentions made me sick - literally.
There were many times during production that I reached out to my lawyer, producer, executive producer and editor warning them of our potentially immoral actions. I wanted to call off the production at one point. My team continuously consoled me and reassured me that I was simply telling the truth. But what was the cost of this truth? Was the truth so important that someone’s career had to be sacrificed? I was torn because I grew fond of Oz and thought he was brilliant (exploitive maybe - but so was I) and seemingly fearless. On the other hand, I was making the best movie I had ever made. I deluded myself with the hopeful and optimistic fantasy that even Oz would think it was brilliant. Perhaps he would be proud to be the centre of such a story, even if it cast him in a dubious light. Of all the people in the world, surely Oz could understand the need for good art regardless of who it hurt. In the depth of my despair, I asked Oz the following question in an interview - what if someone hurts someone’s feelings with the art they make? He responded with - “An artist should make whatever art he is compelled to make regardless who he hurts. If someone gets hurt then, bad luck”. Even Oz agreed that what I was doing was fair game and necessary.
For the record, Oz never lied. Had I asked him straight out for the truth, I would like to believe he would have told me what I wanted to know. But then I wouldn't have a movie. Even Roman had a hard time asking for the truth. He feared his family would withhold their involvement. Truth, if you confront it head on, is readily available to us and if not drawn out masterfully through manipulation it can cut a really good story short. What is fascinating is our fear of losing people that we need truth from. What I learned most as a documentarian from this investigation is that important stories live in the gaps between lies and truth. It is when we exploit those subjects caught between this chasm is where we find really good stories.