This documentary about lying mixes personal stories and science to share some surprisingly authentic conclusions.
(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies
The cranky but ultimately ingenious Dr. House (of the long-running Fox drama that bore his name) often solved his medical mysteries by relying on one basic truth: everybody lies. But whereas House spewed out those words with a not-so-subtle dash of condescension, a new documentary by director Yael Melamede casts an empathetic lens on nine men and women who told pretty big whoppers—and suffered quite a public lashing for their transgression. Interweaving a fair dose of research and behavioral science (more specifically “behavioral economics,” as we’re told the field is called), (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies does a fairly good job of making everyone from drug-abusing athletes to businessmen convicted of accounting fraud not seem too different from the average Joe.
It’s probably worth noting early on that while the feature-length documentary trend is toward cohesive narratives that feel a bit like traditional dramas, with one singular story arc, this film is not that. It’s educational at heart. Released in conjunction with The (Dis)Honesty Project, an installation art exhibit and corresponding website that crowdsources people’s experiences with lying, the film’s main purpose seems to distill a bit of the information gathered throughout their research. Behind the project is Dr. Dan Ariely of Duke University, who is a central figure in the documentary, both in explaining the science in intermittent scenes at a lecture hall (which is not at all dry because he’s a fairly charming guy) and also leads experiments with real college students at universities across the country. Essentially, this is a documentary about the results of a behavioral science project prettied up with super sleek graphics, compelling human-interest stories, and a relatable, funny tour guide in Dr. Ariely.
But before you get scared, this is a far cry from those monotone one-note documentaries your eighth grade teacher played while catching up on some grading. The filmmakers do one hell of a job making the subject relatable and engaging. If anything, the interweaving of test cases, short lectures, personal interviews, and explanatory animation sequences into potent mini explorations of why people lie reminds me of the better MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), a newer phenomenon where condensed versions of real university classes are offered for free on a global scale via platforms like Coursera and edX. If you love online learning, the film is a hugely rewarding 90 minutes on an interesting—and as far as I now, not terribly understood—subject.
But for those who crave the documentary format’s ability to showcase vulnerability and raw emotion, the dozen or so vignettes from a few semi-famous public cases of dishonesty feel like some of the most honest moments of nonfiction in recent memory (perhaps ironically). Of the more affecting interviews are Marilee Jones, a former Dean of Admissions at MIT who was fired after 28 years with the university once it was discovered she lied on her application about her educational background, and Joe Papp, a former U.S. professional cyclist who tested positive for doping. Their stories felt ripe with transparency, as if there was nothing left to lose.
Seating their subjects in an empty gray room, the filmmakers used Interrotron, a technology where the subjects see (and thus talk) to the director or Dr. Ariely directly through the camera lens, which gave a great sense of intensity to the stories. The technique really seemed to emphasize the eyes and caught these moments of recognition as these men and women grappled to understand their actions even as they were retelling a story they’ve surely told a million times. The filmmakers are clearly viewable to the subject, but their presence isn’t felt in the resulting film, which emulates intimacy between storyteller and viewer. While the film itself is fragmented in structure, these shorter scenes flow naturally, with no sense of prompting or questioning. They’re the film’s most engaging moments.
But we shouldn’t think of the narrative moments and the more scientific moments as in conflict with each other. In fact, a discussion of tests performed in university classrooms that have proved repeatedly that an overwhelming majority of people will cheat if they see the cheating as small, combined with the laughter from the audience as Dr. Ariely retells their studies—a laughter spawned from a shared understanding of the human condition—all serve to strengthen the empathy we feel toward the “big offenders” who are left retelling their deeply personal descents. The Dishonesty Project seems to suggest the truth to a certain Maya Angelou quote: “We are more alike, my friends, than unalike.”
If any documentary this year elicits introspection and perhaps a small sort of compassion for our fellow humans, (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies might be the one. I promise I’m not exaggerating.