I am usually not a fan when documentary filmmakers turn the cameras on themselves. It feels self-indulgent and narcissistic while laboring under the guise of presenting a more honest and truthful picture when the obvious truth is that every documentary has a point of view. Objectivity in art is impossible, and every storyteller makes choices. While a documentary filmmaker is ethically bound not to create fictions or deceive their audience, they’re still presenting their accounting of the facts. But what happens when the documentarian has no choice but to become part of their story? That’s the case with Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which starts out as the story of comedian The Amazing Johnathan (real name John Szeles) and then spreads outward as Berman wonders how his documentary can even exist. The journey is wild, unexpected, and surprisingly emotional.
In 2014, comedian and magician The Amazing Johnathan was diagnosed with a terminal illness and doctors only gave him one year to live. Before this diagnosis, Johnathan was an incredibly successful performer as he blended dark comedy with magic tricks, serving to deconstruct a typical magic show into something more subversive and dangerous. However, his illness, a cardiomyopathy, forced him into retirement, which is where Berman’s story begins as it chronicles Johnathan’s attempt at a comeback. But then Berman learns some surprising information that throws the documentary production into chaos and has Berman questioning his place in Johnathan’s story.
As I write this (January 26, 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival), the film currently doesn’t have distribution, which means it also doesn’t have a trailer. I don’t know what they’ll give away when they attempt to market the film, but for now, in the press notes and on the Sundance website, they’re keeping the twists under wraps, so I shall do the same. I will simply say that those twists are what force Berman to step out from behind the camera and become a co-star of this documentary as he struggles to find a way to tell this story while questioning if Johnathan—a magician, comedian, and performer—is being completely honest with him.
Amazing Johnathan Documentary ends up being one of the more instructive examples of the documentary form, and I’m eager to hear what documentarians think about it. While the film starts out as sympathetic to Johnathan, eventually its sympathies have to lie with Berman, who is struggling to overcome multiple roadblocks just to have his movie exist. It’s clear that Berman always wants to be as honest as possible with his audience, but that honesty can only extend as far as those who are being honest with him. Eventually, he has to ask tough questions not just of Johnathan but also of himself and explain why he wanted to make this documentary in the first place. It also raises the question if making a documentary about a dying man, whose death would provide an “ending”, is exploitative and necessary.
If Amazing Johnathan Documentary were solely about The Amazing Johnathan, it would be fine, but I applaud Berman for pushing himself further and really wrestling with what his story is about and taking it in new direction rather than try to force an uncooperative narrative. These new directions may not always reflect well on Berman personally as he repeatedly ends up looking foolish due to someone else’s actions, but he rolls with the punches, which makes the documentary a total trip and a constant delight. Again, it’s tough to talk about how this happens specifically without going into details, but the overall production is courageous as Berman steps forward not out of vanity but because he has no other choice.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary unexpectedly shows how the documentary form can be exhilarating because you don’t know where a story will take you. You may think you have the narrative figured out, but then you have to adapt and possibly become something else. What ostensibly begins as just a tragicomic story of a formerly famous magician/comedian attempting a comeback despite his personal shortcomings is forced to transform into a personal story of doubt and uncertainty before arriving at something incredibly sweet in the most unexpected way possible. Just as The Amazing Johnathan would break down a magic trick in order to get to a good joke, Berman breaks down the documentary form in order to find his best movie.