Make Believe Seattle 2023: Mister Organ – Worth the Soul Tax?

Should you get involved? This is a question for every documentarian. When making a documentary, if you get too far in the weeds with any subject, you might find that you have become the subject. Mister Organ makes a bold case both for and against heavy self-involvement with one’s own subject. Filmmaker David Farrier begins the story by journaling on his blog. There’s this couple who run an antique store in Auckland, New Zealand and they’re putting clamps down on people’s cars who park there after the store closes and demanding hundreds of dollars to take them off. David Farrier’s mere reportage on these incidents, which escalated into hundreds of cases, is enough to raise the couple’s ire.

After enough reports, the store has to close. Farrier takes the signs as a souvenir of this strange moment in his journalism career. Then the couple ends up suing him for stealing the signs from the shop and the day before the court date the signs mysteriously disappear from his home. From here, the web of deceit begins to unravel as the documentarian gets closer and closer to his subjects and further away from the safe harbor of ethical distance and the grounding of his own truth. He begins to learn about the identity of the man who clamped down all those cars and set him up for a lawsuit, the titular Mister Organ, Michael Organ. As Farrier interviews a long series of associates, each interview spawns further leads and complaints. We find out about stolen yachts, high-end mental manipulation, one man being driven to suicide, and a treacherous roadmap of a life lived exploiting everyone involved for all they were worth.

We see exactly how the mental gambit unfolds. Michael Organ plays the same scheme on the filmmaker. You can fool many people but when you’re being documented and talk to the documentarian for hours each session, all of your tracks may be uncovered as a matter of public record. It’s really an incredible and convoluted series of manipulations. We see the gaslighting clear as day and hope the filmmaker can too. We do wonder, sometimes, if he would be able to step away. The film is costing the filmmaker gravely at a mental level but in creating a record of this kind of manipulation, he falls so deeply into the web himself that he can barely crawl his way out, even for the purpose of finishing his documentary.

David Farrier is talented at finding terrible subjects and then becoming very involved in their lives and activities. The same pattern emerged in his 2016 documentary Tickled, the stranger-than-fiction story about an organization behind tickling competitions and the deep web of deceit behind it. You see, he cannot show up to a tickling competition without falling into a deeply corrupted story of bad people and then giving so much of himself that it comes at a great personal cost.

The stakes are scarier here. This hits closer to home. He’s inviting these people into his spaces after they’ve made clear in no uncertain terms that they shouldn’t be messed with and then he is probing them about the litigious history of their murky past. When they show up proclaiming they have a key to the filmmaker’s own home, presenting it as though the knowledge is a kind of threat of access, we can’t really be surprised anymore. Farrier is taken for a ride, as that is the only possible result of this association. It’s fascinating to watch and presents an amazing psychological case study into a dark mind but we’re left to wonder if that’s the way it should really be.

Should the documentarian get so close to such a difficult subject? Is it that revealing, when they do, and the result is that the subject manipulates them terribly on a psychological level, thus repeating the entire history the filmmaker then uncovers, just as it’s happening to them? It becomes unsurprising perhaps and at worst, we may wonder if it’s only for the movie, or if there is some part of the filmmaker which is drawn into the kind of psychological profile these people must want to exploit. What emerges, in any case, is a deeply entertaining documentary wherein the filmmaker sacrifices their very sanity to tell us an intriguing story about some shady characters who have a guilty complex that makes them want to admit their whole history to anyone who wants to record it, and they’ve found the perfect mark.

Every time he talks with them, it costs the filmmaker a soul tax, he tells us, and he pays a lot of tax by the end. They can finally gain credit for their whole history of being deeply unlikeable people and for our benefit, it’s in Farrier’s character that he has to document every moment of it. It sounds like a weak foundation for a documentary process but just try watching it and not being compulsively swept into the same web as the filmmaker. You will not be able to stop but you will understand.


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