Australian director Peter Weir's latest film is finally out in Australia. Called The Way Back, it deals with the story of a group of Russian prisoners who make a grueling 4000 mile escape from a Siberian gulag during the Second World War. Based on a book by Slavomir Rawicz of the same title, it depicts what's been claimed to be a true story of the author's journey overland to India.
As so often happens for "true stories", questions have been raised about its veracity, and the likely role Rawicz played. Weir himself almost dropped the project on the basis of these claims, believing the only way the film could work was if it was a "true story". It does seem to have had a negative impact on its American release, having come out there in January, just in time for the 2011 Oscars (it's been nominated for Make Up), but died a quick and nearly silent death within weeks. Maybe it's the ruthless tentpole market that Weir talks about in the below interview, or maybe it was a direct response to the queries regarding the "true story" tag. Either way, the rumours couldn't have helped in a world that seems obsessed with the "true story" over the fictional one.
In the interview captured below, Weir decided to pursue the project, despite lingering doubts, largely because the research he unearthed suggested that there were many documented stories of escapes similar to this one; that the fact that they have happened in some form, in similar situations and with similar outcomes was enough to hang the "based on a true story" tag on The Way Back.
My question is, though, why the obsession with the "true story" label? Why does a dramatic feature film have to have its grounding in actual events? Is it less satisfying if it's fictional - made up, created in someone's head - rather than taken from their life? Actual experience? Real events?
Where do we draw the line anyway? If it happened somewhere, or we think it happened somewhere, is that "fact" enough? Even that it could happen somewhere - do we need to know to whom, when, and where?
How much non-fiction is true anyway? It's supposed to be true, of course, but how can we know? And why must we know? What is truth anyway, when all of these renderings come in the form of someone else's musings, their perspective, their slant? Always the story is viewed through a distorted or filtered prism. It is always someone's take - whether the screenwriter, the author, the director or even the producer. Maybe it's even the actors'. Or a combination of all of these. How can we know where the story starts and the facts stop?
Worse still, this push for "facts" in our stories could arguably be the reason for so many literary hoaxes of late, James Frey being probably the most widely vilified. He couldn't sell his novel as fiction, so he sold it as memoir. He really had spent an afternoon in jail for drug related offenses - didn't that qualify him to tell a "true account" of the life of a drug addict who, after a stint in prison, redeems himself and gets clean?
Did the fact that this "memoir" was plugged as self-help somehow make Frey's crime worse than had he written a "factual" account with no redeeming message of hope? No, "look what I did - and survived!" theme underpinning it? I'd guess if we asked Oprah, her answer would be yes. It's much worse.
My question is, are we kidding ourselves that we can somehow learn more from "non-fiction" than we can from fiction? That its message is somehow more reliable, more accessible, and more believable because the events "really happened".
Peter Weir believes that he'd found enough evidence in the research about other stories of long walks across the desert to justify his faith in the veracity of The Way Back as a "based on true events" story. Maybe he did.
My question is, does it matter?
Here's the link to the interview.