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As specter of AI looms, ‘Lifespan of a Fact’ ever more timely


Artificial Intelligence or AI is a hot topic at the onset of 2024. It became the central issue in last year’s writer’s strike, with the members of that industry expressing fears that if movie studios used the technology to write scripts in whole or in part, their role would be diminished or even made completely obsolete. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville came under fire for using AI-generated voiceovers from Anthony Bourdain’s television shows, radio and podcast appearances and audiobooks in his Roadrunner documentary about the late travel-chef. And former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has labelled AI as “an existential risk,” warning that “many, many, many, many people” could be killed or harmed by “evil people” misusing the technology.

With this as context, Lifespan of a Fact seems ever more prescient and timely.

The plot follows Jim Fingal, a recent Harvard English major who took a job as a fact-checker with one of the best magazines in the country. Not long after, Fingal’s boss tasked him with applying his formidable skills to a groundbreaking essay written by legendary author John D’Agata which, coincidentally, had been rejected by another publication. It quickly becomes clear to Fingal why. D’Agata, he discovers, made up a lot of the information contained in the essay, and so what starts out as a professional relationship quickly becomes profane as D’Agata and Fingal struggle to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction and the importance of truth in journalism.

It falls upon Reuben Garcia, Jennifer Mance and Keith Gahagan to highlight the play’s dramatic theme, namely the interplay between truth and storytelling when it comes to journalism and, derivatively, theater, literature, filmmaking and even music.

While the injection of AI into the creative process is quite new, the use of “expansive storytelling techniques” is not.

For example, playwright Jordan Tannahill took extensive liberties with historical fact and yet Botticelli in the Fire was touted as a recounting of the events surrounding the creation of his masterpiece The Birth of Venus and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Authors Dan Brown, Steve Berry and James Rollins have amassed fortunes pioneering the genre of “historical” fiction with works like The DaVinci Code, The Amber Room and Sandstorm. And no less than Paul McCartney made headlines in 2023 when he announced that he had employed AI technology to remake and remaster a previously-unreleased Beatles demo under the title of “Now and Then” to “extricate” John Lennon’s voice from a thready cassette recording. The furor that ensued compelled the legendary musician to quickly clarify that “nothing has been artificially or synthetically created.”

While Beatles fans may be inclined for various reasons to overlook the ethics of using computer-generated technology to add to the storied Beatles anthology, the people who devour documentary films are not as lenient or forgiving – perhaps because documentarians purport to be presenting factual narratives about the people and events that become the subject of their exposes.

In reality, most (perhaps all) documentary filmmakers discount, distort and ignore key facts in aid of more cohesive, fluent and compelling storytelling. This is not new. Nanook of the North is a case in point. When Robert Flaherty lensed the documentary in 1922, he staged most of the scenes he included in the film, changed his subject’s name from Allakariallak to Nanook because the former was impossible for American audiences to pronounce, and substituted a prettier Inuit woman for Nanook’s plain-bordering-on-severe real-life wife. Yet, these adaptations were never revealed to the audiences who viewed the film.

How far can – or should – filmmakers go in sacrificing historical and factual accuracy in aid of storytelling? The use of AI to recreate Anthony Bourdain’s voice (or distill John Lennon’s from an old, poor-quality cassette tape) may seem relatively innocuous and inconsequential. But should audiences know when the subject of a documentary is paid to appear in a biopic about their life? Or the political views of a documentarian or the socio-political agenda they may be seeking to advance with their seemingly fact-based film?

Lifespan of a Fact does not deal directly in these or a host of other issues in the fact-versus-fiction debate, but it certainly does by implication, and for that reason alone it is perhaps one of the timeliest plays on stage in Southwest Florida as the embryonic 2024 season unfolds.

Go here for play dates, times and cast information.

January 2, 2024.


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