Filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp is a real person, but his movie isn’t. Kinda. On one level, it’s a very real documentary. On the other, it’s a recontextualization of a bunch of footage he found; over a hundred hours of it, logged by an unknown family over several years on YouTube.
For the aptly titled Fraud, making its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto this week, the filmmaker perhaps best known for creating the lovable Marcel the Shell with his partner Jenny Slate, captures a family unit that would be relatively unremarkable except for committing the titular crime. The family consists of a Ted Nugent loving father-slash-cameraman who loves the good life, his wife, and their kids. They buy a lot of stuff they don’t need and that they can’t afford. Then they go into debt. They apply for credit cards and begin the cycle of spending anew. Then, when their debt is officially insurmountable they go to extremes you’ll just have to see to believe.
Fleischer-Camp had no contact with his subjects throughout the assembly of Fraud, but one certainly gets to know them over the course of spending an hour with them. It’s hard to believe that someone would film some of the things that happen in Fraud, but there they are, and here is Fleischer-Camp and editor Jonathan Rippon to document it all.
We caught up with Fleischer-Camp via e-mail this week for a relatively spoiler-free discussion about creating a documentary out of somewhat ludicrous footage that has just been hanging around on the internet, waiting for someone like him to come along.
How exactly did Fraud come together? It seems like the kind of film that would take a lot of puzzling over.
Dean Fleischer-Camp: I found the family’s videos on YouTube several years ago and was mesmerized. But I put off making a documentary for years because I figured it would be too much work. Now that the film is finished, I know that I was right.
How much did you question what you were actually seeing?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: I avoided doing too much questioning because I wanted to remain neutral and open to the process of editing this huge archive of material into a cohesive original story. Our priority was to piece together the best story possible from the footage. I don’t think you can do that if you’re passing judgement. We also wanted the footage to dictate the story, not the other way around. We wanted to remain open to the material we had in the most uninhibited way possible, which meant suspending judgement completely. Not just ethical judgement but normal everyday judgements and assumptions about continuity, geography, context, timeline. All of the basic coordinates you depend on for everyday life, we tried to divorce ourselves from those things when dealing with the footage.
It’s absolutely exhilarating to buy an exciting new phone or whatever, and as a basic tenet of consumer culture I think that feeling is very universal and something that connects us all. But like any high, chasing it can become unmanageable.
What have you learned about this family since putting the film together?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: Almost nothing. All I know is from the footage. During the edit, I tried to avoid learning anything about them because I didn’t want it to color my impressions of them. That’s less important now that the film is completed, but we only finished it like a week ago so I haven’t had a chance to meet them yet. They are going to join us at some upcoming festivals though so I’m really looking forward to getting to know them better!
There’s a very interesting, very North American subtext here about living “the American Dream” at all costs, and while this family goes to extremes to achieve that, do you think there could be a lot of families that see elements of themselves in this family, especially in the earlier part of the film?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: I think it’s universal, not just North American. I know I see a lot of myself and my friends in it. I have an acquaintance who tried to commit insurance fraud by pretending his car was stolen. The story in the film is not that uncommon. It’s absolutely exhilarating to buy an exciting new phone or whatever, and as a basic tenet of consumer culture I think that feeling is very universal and something that connects us all. But like any high, chasing it can become unmanageable.
Is there a compulsion to track these people down, or would you prefer to remain at arm’s length from this?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: I’ve spoken on the phone with Gary (the father) a few times now. He sounds like a sweet and genuine guy. Obviously, we got his permission to create this story out of his footage, but I tried to keep our contact minimal during editing just because I didn’t want my in real life experience to alter how I viewed the project.
How many other people knew this footage was out there?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: Most of his videos have a couple hundred views. But in their raw, unedited form, they tell a different story than they tell in our film.
How hard is it to assemble a film like this in the edit when you are basically beholden to the cuts made by the cameraperson to begin with?
Dean Fleischer-Camp: So hard! An incredible amount of man hours went into it. Fortunately, my editor Jonathan Rippon is a brilliant creative thinker with a truly insane work ethic. Some of the solutions he came up with for our film are so damn ingenious that they’re basically indistinguishable from magic. This film would never have been possible without him. But I think all our hard work pays off in that it makes a second or third or fourth viewing really rewarding. There is a lot to discover about the film, even after you’ve seen it.