*featured image courtesy of MediaStorm*
My reaction to “The American-Made Benny” has many layers, like onions and Shrek.
If you have not watched this 25-minute documentary, it is well worth your time. Created by MediaStorm, a company of professionals and media students dedicated to digital storytelling, “The American-Made Benny” is the story of a Vietnam veteran living with PTSD, an unhappy wife, no job and a garage full of other people’s valuables. He is a self-proclaimed “garbologist” that his neighbor calls a “good guy” but his daughter calls crazy.
At the surface level, my heart was warmed by the ability for journalists to reach deeply into a man’s life and tell his story. It’s a story of terror and triumph -one that Americans can both admire and despise at the same time.
After peeling back that first layer I began to notice anger. I felt angry at the American government and upset that Benny lived a life that, frankly, I would not want for myself or anyone I know.
Lastly, I was confused. I realized that Benny’s story had more layers than a beach ball sized onion and that a 25-minute interview could not rightfully communicate it all. In fact, I began to feel bad for those involved in Benny’s life. I understood what made him so eccentric and harsh, but my skin still crawled when he called his wife “bitch”.
“On paper it sounded perfect: a former sanitation worker who now sells other people’s garbage out of his garage… but as is often the case, the reality was full of surprises,” said the documentary’s producer, Eric Maierson.
Although Benny seemed like a journalist’s dream come true, the production staff soon found their film to be filled with ethical concerns. First, Benny is an avid marijuana smoker that doesn’t “find anything wrong with it”. Second, he recollects moments in his life that may or may not have happened and, if they did, he tells his story with extreme bias (as all people do).
He talks about a time he was put in jail for three days after being wrongly accused of hitting his daughter. Benny claims he was breaking up a sibling fight and was simply caught in the middle, whereas his wife is the one that tends to hit him. True or not, it is difficult to present such accusations to the American public without hearing the wife’s side. What if community members saw this video and treated her differently because of it? What if Benny’s story is completely fabricated and the wife is viewed negatively because of it? In fact, the workshop leader of the production team, Rob Finch, recalled a conversation with Benny’s daughter and wife: “It was clear they were concerned about the project,” he said, “They told me about drugs, alchohol, mental illness, verbal abuse, and general meanness.” However, Finch could not persuade them to participate in a formal interview.
The documentary provides enough information for the audience to notice that Benny is not a stable man. However, certain scenes generate pity or admiration from the audience. Should these scenes have been included if Benny is not all that meets the eye, as his family suggests?
Personally, I would not have publicized the documentary in the way MediaStorm did. Although the story is intriguing, which is the essence of journalism -telling a captivating story that, otherwise, would be left untold -I think that it could have been produced differently. For example, MediaStorm could have deviated from their typical storytelling template and included interviews of staff that worked with Benny. Or, at the very least, encouraged viewers to click “The Challenge of The American-Made Benny” immediately after the original film fades to black.
While discussing the challenges of production, Maierson admits that he still struggles with his decision.
“Did I provide enough clues to allow someone to make informed decisions, or did I simply say, ‘Here’s what Benny says; you figure it out.’? I worry it’s the latter,” he said.
Although it is a journalist’s duty to report news and provide a voice to the voiceless, it is ultimately a reporters duty to depict the truth. In this case, the production team was aware that Benny’s interview may not have been an accurate portrayal of his life and, because of that, should have provided additional commentary or resources to viewers in order to justify publicizing a potentially unethical film.