A research looks at the effects of the "based on true events" formula
UC3M/DICYT The formula "based on true events" and similar ones are used in audiovisual fiction, among other things, to short-circuit the critical and interpretative distance with the story being told, to generate a false sense of discursive transparency and to create simulations of factuality in the rhetorical and stereotyped space of an audiovisual discourse that hides its political dimension by appealing to "facts". These are the conclusions of a study carried out by a researcher from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) that analyses the political dimension of this kind of expression used massively in TV series and fiction films.
"By using the formula 'based on true events', the aim is to somehow make the spectator to believe that fiction is faithful to reality and to stop wondering about the logic involved in the story itself", explains Pilar Carrera, an professor of Communication at the UC3M, who has recently published a book with the same title “Basado en hechos reales: mitologías mediáticas e imaginario digital” (Based on true events: media mythologies and digital imaginary) in Cátedra +Media, a new series from the publishing house made up of short essays on current topics.
This kind of formulas allows to introduce the rhetoric and effects of documentary and informative discourses into the territory of fiction. In fact, in the case of documentaries there is, in terms of meaning, one more turn of the screw, presupposing not only that the story being told is based on real events, but that this is directly the reality: "This is obviously a false assumption; in a documentary there is as much mise en scene than in fiction and the rhetorical mechanisms used to generate effects of truth should not be confused with a supposed pre-discursive truth," indicates Pilar Carrera.
The fictional story that is said to be "based on true events" supports the discourse on values characteristic of fiction with the effect of documentary truth ("factual truth"), the book notes. All of this is done without assuming the responsibilities or potential sanctions that come with the assumption of true-saying in documentary or informational terms: the 'based on’ or 'inspired in’ introduce a nuance that presupposes the possibility of inaccuracy or a margin for 'free interpretation' and 'error'. In short, it suggests that something is true and, at the same time, that if it is not, nothing happens, since, in the end, it is a fiction.
In recent times we see a progressive shift from fiction to the rhetorical space of the documentary, according to Carrera. This goes far beyond the classic use of fragments of documentaries, reports, newsreels or photographs in fiction films to give them a plus of verisimilitude. "The formula 'based on actual facts' affects the reception of fiction as a whole and its political and cultural dimension without the need to resort to archival material," she says in the essay.
Many series are adopting a documentary look, as it is the case of Chernobyl (HBO, 2019), in which the search for a systematic confusion between fiction and document is evident to the extent that the series is presented as follows: Based on an untold true story. "Although a fiction, Chernobyl is consumed, in many ways, as a documentary. Probably, when people see it, they think they are knowing the truth about what happened, when, in reality, we are dealing with an extremely conventional story in terms of narrative and with limited value in terms of historical understanding," says Pilar Carrera.
The ideological and political effects of this type of fictional historical account should not be underestimated, according to the essay, because of its ability to shape the social imaginary. "Fiction, and especially serial fiction, to which a large part of the population dedicates a great amount of time that directly prevents or substantially reduces the consumption of other kind of stories, is very powerful, generating emotional attachment and, as a consequence, adherence to the thesis that underlies the interpretation of the events being undertaken and which is intended to be concealed by appealing to 'actual facts'," the essay concludes.
In the book "Based on true events", Carrera analyzes other issues that are framed in what she calls "society without spectacle". In this context, topics such as the emergence of the fake, post-truth, the relations between discourse and action, as well as other aspects –the relations between photography and politics, the dominant discourses on Europe or on motherhood– are dealt with. Ultimately, its aim is to show, from different angles, the logic on which the digital imaginary is forged and its implications for the individual, the citizen and the functioning of democracy.
Carrera, Pilar (2020). Basado en hechos reales: mitologías mediáticas e imaginario digital, Ediciones Cátedra, Colección +Media, Madrid, Spain. ISBN: 978-84-376-4102-7