The most interesting thing about Fraud is the number of perspectives you can bring to it. In one sense, it is a movie about editing. During the screening at Fantastic Fest, my wife, overcome by all the jittery first-person camera work, left the theater, and I wondered what I would say if, when she returned, she asked what had happened. Most likely I would have said something like "well, there was some footage of the woman doing something that wasn't quite clear, and then a shot of a computer keyboard burning, and then we were in a car driving down a rainy country road."
You see, while editor-turned-director Dean Fleischer-Camp's intent was to make a narrative feature, it’s difficult, knowing the manner in which he did so, to watch it without seeing it as a collection of unmoored scenes with individual meanings independent of their function within the story. In this way, Fraud itself is a kind of fraud, albeit an ingenious and informative one.
Fraud could also be considered a commentary on the narcissistic, obsessively self-documenting character of our current age, which it is. Its stars are a superficially average--and real--Pennsylvania family whose iPhone movies of their every road trip, day out, play date, restaurant meal, shopping excursion, and family occasion have come to occupy a large chunk of space on YouTube. Fleischer-Camp discovered the family after falling into one of those internet k-holes we're all so familiar with and hit upon the idea of assembling bits of their footage into a fictional narrative. Two years later--and after a lot of meticulous work by a team of editors--Fraud saw completion.
During a post-screening interview, Fleischer-Camp described his nervousness when presenting the finished film to “Gary”, the subject family’s paterfamilias and primary documentarian. The director and his crew had taken a “make it up as we go” approach to the film’s story, and the story that eventually emerged was one of a family who, after an orgy of impulse buying, falls upon financial hard times and, to recoup their losses, commits insurance fraud by burning their house down. The rest of the film chronicles their flight from justice—with rest stops at various chain restaurants and malls, one of which is hosting a grandiose launch event for the iPhone 5.
It would be natural to worry that a family like Gary’s might find such treatment invasive, especially given they had never asked for it. But, according to Fleischer-Camp, Gary loved the completed film. “Well,” observed the interviewer. “He does seem like someone who likes to look at himself.” Fleischer-Camp agreed.
In another sense, Fraud is an examination of the filmmaking process as trickery. There are a number of points at which it’s difficult to tell whether what we are looking at is “real.” For instance, was this family really in trouble financially? In the film, this is communicated with shots of a default notice on a computer screen, accompanied by off-screen voices saying things like “wow” and “oh no.” It’s worthwhile to consider just how easy it would be to manufacture these shots and insert them into the narrative—a practice that would be innocuous with regards to source footage of paid actors, but something else altogether when that footage captures people’s actual lives.
This is important, because, at one point in Fraud, I found myself really not liking this family. That was partly because, within the film, they were being contextualized as symbols of things that I don’t like—mindless consumerism, vapid self-regard, gross eating habits, etc. I also became increasingly annoyed by the father’s need to film—and moreover narrate—absolutely every goddamn thing that his brood either did or spectated. I was particularly bothered by his fixation upon filming his wife’s ass, which, when accompanied by all the product worship on display, just came across as another instance of him showing off one of his attractive possessions. However, looking back on it, there was no clear indication that it was he who was filming these shots, or, for that matter, whether the ass featured in them was his wife’s at all. A later beach scene, in which we see successive butt shots of different women, is of even more dubious provenance.
Suffice it to say that Fraud provides for uneasy viewing. I think it will be hard for anyone with more than a shred of decency to watch it without having the nagging feeling that they shouldn’t be seeing it. Still, it’s my opinion that it is also worthwhile viewing. I know it’s a cliché to say that a film will “make you think about the way you watch movies”, but Fraud not only does that, but also takes a novel and interesting approach to doing it. I also think that it will make you think about the nature of privacy, and how easy it is becoming to surrender it in exchange for the promise of notoriety and an illusory sense of special-ness.