Documentary films are typically considered to be non-fictional, however audiences often question the reality and truth of information presented in documentaries. Documentaries cannot successfully encompass an omniscient perspective but can capture the essence of reality. This means that all films are representations of reality and therefore fictive in nature. Chris Waitt’s A Complete History of my Sexual Failures is a film which challenges the idea of non-fiction in documentary. In this essay, I will argue how A Complete History of my Sexual Failures is a representation of reality and fictive in nature by discussing topics such as performativity, reflexivity, subjectivity, ethics and entertainment.
Chris Waitt’s performativity shows how his film is a representation of reality and fictive in nature. Performativity refers to the constructedness and the performing nature of the subject of the documentary. According to Cohen, Salazar, Barkat (2009, 300), “In some kinds of performative documentaries, the filmmaker becomes an actor, almost as if performing a screenplay for the cameras”. This form breaks away from traditional documentaries which seek to be neutral third party observers. Chris Waitt is not only the director of the documentary but he is also the subject who ‘acts’ or performs in front of the camera. He uses the documentary as a cathartic learning experience and as a quest to find answers about the failure of his past relationships in the hope he can improve himself. We see him talking in front of the camera about how he was been dumped by “pretty much every girl he’s met”, rings up his past girlfriends and knocks on some their doors to interview them on camera. Most of them refuse emphatically by hanging up on the phone and shutting the door in his face. He appears to be a scruffy, lazy, hopeless and depressed guy who relies on his mother. This description sounds like a character from a romantic comedy. According to Nichols (2001, 130), “Performative documentary underscores the complexity of our knowledge of the world by emphasizing its subjective and affective dimensions”. At this point the audience does not have much sympathy for him but this is what he wants us to think. His character is relatable, most people know someone like Chris Waitt. In reality he probably behaves and appears different than when the camera is not recording him. This leads me to the topic of reflexivity.
The use of reflexivity in this film shows how it is a representation of reality and fictive in nature. Reflexivity is an act of self-reference aim of questioning the conventions and revealing the constructed nature of documentary. According to Nichols (1991, 33) “Reflexive documentary arose from the desire to make the conventions of representation more apparent and to challenge the impression of reality which the other three modes normally conveyed unproblematically.” This method usually involves shots showing the presence of the film crew, equipment and other parts of the filmmaking process. Waitt carries a boom microphone with headphones around his neck when he approaches someone for an interview much like fellow documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield. It is strange to use a boom microphone in this situation because it would be more practical to use a dynamic microphone like journalists do. He also features clapperboards and a scathing phone call from one of the documentary’s producers who wanted him to stop filming. In an interview with Margaret Pomeranz for the ABC television show At the Movies (2009), Waitt explains that he included these scenes due to lack of interesting footage as most of the girls had refused to talk to him. According to Chapman (2009, 115), “The introduction of reflexive elements implies that the documentary maker may act as an interpreter of reality rather than an objective recorder of the real world”. I think it was a conscious decision to include these reflexive scenes as it authenticates fictionalization, therefore allowing him to make a connection between his mistakes in the filming process and attitude towards relationships. It seems that this serves as a broader comment on society rather than documenting a part of his life. This mode shows that this film is a representation of reality and is related to the concept of subjectivity.
The use of subjectivity in this film shows how it is a representation of reality and fictive in nature. Subjectivity refers to information which is based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions rather than facts. “Real time, real events are fairly chaotic, and there are usually a million opinions about whatever the issue is that is being discussed, and once you are in the process of constructing a film, you invariably start to shape it to your own view (Friedrich in Chapman 2009, 49).” Subjectivity is inevitable in the filmmaking process because the director must be selective with footage that is filmed and shown in the final production for the documentary to have cultural value. Chris Waitt uses subjectivity to convey emotion and tell a compelling story (Chapman 2009, 131). They filmed several hours of footage and had to fit into a feature documentary of least 90 minutes, so with little results on his initial storyline he had to construct a documentary that was worth watching. He selectively chooses what he says and what the girls say to shape the audiences view of him. Waitt seems to make a fool of himself; overdosing on Viagra, singing in the psychologist’s office and the way he approaches his ex-girlfriends. When he interviews the ex-girlfriends, all the negative points are highlighted and paint a picture of him as a selfish ‘jerk’. One interview is conducted with the interviewee behind a curtain and criticizes him through text-to-speech software. The point of subjectivity shows how the documentary is a representation of reality and calls the ethics of the filmmaker into question.
The ethical practices in this film reveals how it is a representation of reality and fictive in nature. There are a few sections in the documentary where I believe Waitt has pushed the ethical boundaries too far and some scenes appear staged. Initially, he did not obtain the consent of the participants prior to interviewing them, which is bad enough but then he proceeded to insensitively use his past girlfriends with little benefit to the public. Winston (2005, 187) explains the ‘consent defence’ “retrospectively justifies the everyday little white lies and omissions that often characterise the ‘bargaining’ between filmmaker and participant”. However, Pryluck (1976, 262) argues that “Consent is flawed when obtained by the omission of any fact that might influence the giving or withholding permission. I think he abused their good nature by taking something personal to them, making it public and not taking their feelings seriously. Furthermore, there are some dubious scenes which I think were unnecessarily included in the film. They appear to be staged and a mockery of misandry for the purposes of cheap laughs. For example when he is talking about erectile dysfunction, overdoses on Viagra then asks girls on the street to have sex with him and the Sadomasochism scene where he is whipped. These are inappropriate scenes and are a diversion from the storyline of the documentary. Waitt even mentions that he did not want to just a medical film for men (like Embarrassing Bodies) but he also wanted it to be amusing to watch (Pomeranz 2009). With all this constructed reality, you might wonder why he made a documentary and not a romantic comedy. The reason for this is because he was able to get funding from a film company for the documentary. This leads me to my next point of entertainment.
Waitt’s use of entertainment reveals how this film is a representation of reality and fictive in nature. The film starts off as a reflection on a miserable love life and turns into a joke. His premise for the project is interesting but it ends up being presented as more of a parody of the situation rather than an insightful or didactic documentary. Audiences are confused by this because the line between fact and fiction is blurred. Does the addition of comedy and possible staging make this a Mockumentary? According to Hight and Roscoe (2001, 46) “Mock-documentaries are fictional texts” which utilise “the aesthetics of documentary in order to undermine such claims to truth”, so it can’t be considered a mockumentary because the filmmaker’s intention was to make a non-fictional text. Waitt uses comedy and drama to entertain a wider audience but the events in the film did occur although arranged just for the film. At times the film does have moments of poignancy, for instance when his ex-fiancée breaks down and tells of his failure as well as her heartache. In the end the film has a happy ending; he ends up with another girlfriend. All these parts are there to satisfy the audience and shows how Waitt conveniently represents reality for entertainment purposes.
In this essay, I have argued how A Complete History of my Sexual Failures is a representation of reality and fictive in nature by discussing topics such as performativity, reflexivity, subjectivity, ethics and entertainment. You can see how audiences find it problematic to decipher truth from fiction when the lines are blurred. It is difficult to present reality in films because you cannot show everything but you can re-present reality and capture the essence. “Truth is something unattainable. We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth (Michel Brault).”
Chapman, J. 2009. Issues in Contemporary Documentary, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Cohen, Hart, and Juan Salazar. 2009. Screen Media Arts: An Introduction to Concepts & Practices. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Hight, Craig and Jane Roscoe. 2001. Faking it: mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Nichols, B. 1991. Representing reality: issues and concepts in documentary. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Nichols, B. 2001. Introduction to documentary: What Types of Documentary Are There? Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Pomeranz, Margaret. 2009. A Complete History of My Sexual Failures interview. At The Movies. television program. Sydney: ABC Television, March 25.
Pryluck, C. 1976. “Ultimately we are all outsiders: The ethics of documentary filming.” Journal of the University Film Association 33:21-29.
Winston, B. “Ethics” In New Challenges for Documentary, edited by Alan Rosenthal and John Corner, 181-192. Manchester: Manchester University Press