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24 Oct 13
Where the Truth Lies: Alex Gibney, Lance Armstrong and the Catholic Church

Over the course of the last decade Alex Gibney has shone a light on corporate malfeasance, human rights abuses and corruption, both ethical and moral, in contemporary America. Although his stories generally begin on a personal level, with one person or a small group, by their end they pan outwards, not only casting a shadow across much of America, but also its standing in the world. Two of his most recent documentaries are screening in this festival. They are excellent examples of his journalistic technique and obstinacy in reaching the heart of a story. His most recent documentary concerns a disgraced sports star, while the earlier film focuses on the victims of criminal acts that the institution under whose aegis they took place should have had taken action to prevent.

The element of doubt – often employed to undermine the most straightforward of cases –  is entirely absent from Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The film details the Catholic Church's role in covering up the widespread abuse of minors at schools and dioceses around the world. Much of the information that appears in the documentary has previously been made public. The film’s importance lies in its clear and comprehensive account of what happened – a damning indictment of corruption and institutional malfeasance within an organisation whose moral compass is so far off the map it's only recourse is to cover up any wrongdoing – and in reminding us where our concern and sympathy should be directed.

Few documentary filmmakers can or do operate at such an extraordinary scale as Gibney has over the last decade. A producer and TV director throughout the 1990s, it was his cogent analysis of a corporation’s scant regard for ethics and good business practice in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) that elevated his profile internationally. He followed it with the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) which detailed the brutal practices of the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), which showed that his own political leanings would not prevent him uncovering the hypocrisy and hubris of a rising political star.

In Mea Maxima Culpa, we are told the story of a group of young deaf boys admitted by their families into the care of a Catholic school for the deaf in Milwaukee, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Little did the parents know that the man in charge, Father Lawrence Murphy, was a serial child molester who, until his retirement in the 1970s, abused hundreds of boys. Moreover, it was a fact well known within the church, not only amongst the upper echelons of the American Catholic establishment, but by those at the very top of the organisation in the Vatican.

From this bleak story, Gibney tracks an astonishing record of conspiracy and cover- up. What elevates the film beyond the newspaper reports that have dominated the headlines for the last decade is the extent to which Gibney gives a voice to those whose stories were so often ignored or dismissed.

Mea Maxima Culpa shifts between the grand narrative of documenting the misdeeds of organisations or official bodies seemingly beyond reproach, and the many individuals affected. As with the plight of Dilawar – the young taxi driver tortured and beaten to death at Bagram Detention Centre in Afghanistan – whose story is never forgotten amidst the various narrative strands of Taxi to the Dark Side, so the brave individuals who stood up against Father Murphy, the local diocese and, ultimately, Vatican officials, are the heart of Gibney’s film. They were never just fighting for themselves (though often it was against a wall of silence or – worse – an angry and unbelieving public). Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger were fighting for the hundreds of children who, like them, suffered silently whilst a man who should have known better took advantage and, in the process, destroyed their lives. Gibney’s film is a testament to those who chose to take a stand.

The Armstrong Lie is, in many ways, a more personal film for Gibney. Like much of the world he had bought into the myth of Lance Armstrong, seven-times winner of the Tour de France, founder of a charity that has raised hundreds of millions to help save people suffering from cancer, and who was once one of those victims. When he made the fateful decision to return to cycling and the Tour, Gibney was invited to document his journey. The film was shot and nearing completion when news broke of the facade the cyclist had been living. Doping, lying, bullying, cheating. Gibney returned to his film and recut it, with additional interviews and a voiceover by the director, clearly angered that he, too, had been fooled by Armstrong.

The strength of Gibney's film lies in acknowledging why we were all duped by Armstrong. He is handsome, charming and oozes a confidence in himself that enthrals all in his presence. His life story was too good not to buy into and for those who didn't, they faced a barrage of criticism – often ridiculed for being petty minded or jealous. This blend of magnetism and fear remained potent throughout Armstrong's career. If he had not returned to cycling it is likely that this image would have remained intact. Herein lies the enigma at the heart of the film: why, with his wealth, success, charity work and standing in America and around the world, did he believe he could evade the authorities when he knew that in the years following his retirement doping tests had become even more stringent in his sport? And surely he knew that his enemies, who were growing in number, would likely seize this moment as their chance to come after him?

If The Armstrong Lie focused solely on the cyclist it would remain a fascinating work and arguably the most transparent examination of Gibney's own filmmaking practice. (Gibney is honest detailing his own error of judgement.) However, the director correctly judges Armstrong to have been just one player in this game. As the film progresses it becomes clear that the main body behind the Tour is involved in the wider conspiracy. After all, Armstrong wasn't just another champion cyclist, he was a brand who brought in millions to the sport, both in terms of money and viewers. There is no way that such high stakes could be jeopardised by the truth. As such The Armstrong Lie is no different in what it details than Gibney's other films: the story of ruthless people who choose to exercise their power from a deck of cards.

Ian Haydn Smith

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