The Amazing Johnathan Documentary holds a mirror up to the ethics of documentary practice itself


By Milo Clenshaw, 3rd Year, Film & English

I was fortunate to attend the Watershed's premiere screening of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (2019), followed by a satellite Q&A with documentarian Louis Theroux and the film's director, Ben Berman.

The film charts the unlikely narrative of a shock-comedy '80s magician who retired after he was told that he had terminal cancer and one year left to live. The documentary begins three years after this fact, and The Amazing Johnathan is on his way out of retirement for a series of comeback shows.

The film begins innocuously enough, with Berman following the trickster as he prepares for the first of these shows coupled with nostalgic footage of his heyday. Around twenty minutes into the film, however, Johnathan reveals something that sets the documentary down a whole new path, and Berman into a tailspin.

Combining humour, mystery and enough twists for a '60s dancefloor, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is certainly not just a traditional biopic, and within its 91 minute runtime it calls into question the morality and truthfulness of making a documentary about a dying man, as well as reflecting on us, the audience, for wanting to see it.

The question of when documentary becomes exploitation for personal gain is the most interesting one the film asks

Although the film brought a fresh take to the genre, it did disappoint me a little in its structure. For a narrative that had some really interesting things to say it felt a little contrived at times, relying heavily on repeating the shock factor of its humour and falling into tropes like filming the camera operator's reaction for more 'authentic' footage.

Despite this, the packed cinema I was in clearly held an appreciative audience, a collective laugh rising for every new layer of humour. It was slightly reminiscent of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's (2005-) ironic title cards and shocking comedy, often coming from what is implied to the audience but never quite revealed.

The screening was followed by a satellite Q&A, hosted by Theroux and interviewing Berman and executive producer Simon Chinn, well known for his Oscar-winning documentaries Man On Wire (2008) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). Chinn plays a surprising role in the documentary's development too, but you'll have to watch to find out how.

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Personally, I am glad the screening was followed by an interview of the filmmakers, simply because some of the events in the film seem so far-fetched and appear to fit so seamlessly into the narrative that it is hard to believe in the authenticity of the documentary. However, after listening to them speak about the production process, it looks as if they really were just well-timed coincidences.

Berman didn't make for a perfect interviewee, sometimes remaining cagey about aspects of the film's production or it's subject's personality. However Theroux more than made up for this, keeping the audience engaged and often going on to answer his own questions himself.

The most engaging discussion to be had was about documentary ethics, Theroux noting the 'vampiric postures that documentary forces you into'. All three filmmakers had stories of questionable ethical practices, ranging from turning up at the site of a natural disaster and being disappointed that the damage is not that bad, to wishing for a conclusion to a dying subject's narrative, to hoping that gang violence will break out just at the moment of filming.

Combining humour, mystery and enough twists for a '60s dancefloor, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is certainly not just a traditional biopic

The question of when documentary becomes exploitation for personal gain is the most interesting one the film asks, making the audience watching as uncomfortable and complicit as the filmmakers. In one moving scene, which in my opinion could have been explored even further, Berman reads a letter from his mother who died when he was 11. He explains and shows to us how he documented much of the end of her life, and that this may be from where his fascination for subjects around death may stem.

In a moment of sobering honesty between the jokes, Chinn admits how he sometimes finds it 'hard to sleep at night' from some of the ethical decisions he has had to make around documentary. It is a rare and important moment when a film places less emphasis on the narrative within than it does on the motivations behind its production and success.

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The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, although not technically or aesthetically groundbreaking, asks the audience to participate with the uncomfortable questions it asks, and as a result constructs a piece of filmmaking that is fascinating throughout.

There are still answers that I would love to have about some of the mysteries it hints toward, but the journey the film takes you on as an audience member will have to be enough for me. Funny, shocking and always unpredictable, Berman's film is a testament to the possibilities of the documentary genre.

Featured: IMDb / Sundance Institute

What do you think The Amazing Johnathan Documentary adds to the documentary genre?