Arts & Leisure

“Pamela, A Love Story” raises questions about celebrity narrative and voice

image of Pamela Anderson
“Pamela, A Love Story,” released Jan. 31, 2023, on Netflix, showcases Pamela Anderson’s story from her own perspective from childhood to present day using a series of interviews, archival footage and personal videos and diaries. (Photo Courtesy of Pamela Anderson/Instagram)

By Thalia Lauzon

Boston University News Service

Clear rays of light illuminate the bare-faced Pamela Anderson as she trots across the wooden walkway into her lakefront house –– the first scene of Anderson’s intimate documentary “Pamela, A Love Story.” She reaches around a small corner closet full of clothes and random bins, pulling out one of the many home videos that have immortalized her life on film. 

“God, I’m scared. This is not naked I hope,” Anderson says as she begins to play a flurry of her recorded memories from the ‘90s, immediately transporting viewers into her perspective. 

Anderson was not naked, yet. However, she was laid bare in “Pamela, A Love Story” from start to finish as the model and actress shared access to her inner thoughts through diaries, tapes, and personal narration during her highly publicized life. 

The documentary, directed by Ryan White, was released by Netflix on Jan. 31, 2023, and humanized Anderson beyond the famous sex-symbol “caricature,” as Anderson puts it in the film. Netflix promoted the documentary as Anderson reclaiming her narrative after the success of the 2022 Hulu miniseries  “Pam & Tommy,” a show based on the theft and publication of Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee’s honeymoon sex tape. “Pam & Tommy” was made without Anderson’s approval or involvement and reenacted a difficult time in her life, raising the question of truth and consent in both biographical documentaries and stories based on real life.

The two different narratives show separate approaches to creating or recreating people’s stories, said Geoff Poister, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and associate professor at Boston University. The external process, shown by “Pam & Tommy,” presents public figures according to what was reported –– typically newsworthy or controversial actions –– and the other approach allows celebrities to tell their own stories and dive into the mind of the subject. 

“Pamela Anderson was essentially a victim of branding,” said Poister. “Who could tell that story better than her? I didn’t know anything about Pamela Anderson before the documentary, really, but she’s a thoughtful, sensitive human being who has held up remarkably well considering all that she’s been through.”

Filmmaking requires juggling loyalties between audience entertainment, subject consent and plain fact –– leading to the ultimate decision between choosing to make a film that gives voice to a subject or to use them as a sensationalized prop.

In the documentary, Anderson spoke poignantly about the sex tape scandal as being a loss of her human right to privacy. This was revived by the unauthorized creation and monetization of the “Pam & Tommy” series, which she said she will not watch.

Acting or consenting to be filmed at the time does not give up someone’s right to privacy or ownership of the content, said  Cat Vess-Ovsiannikov, who, as a child actress in Los Angeles, faced challenges in taking down videos and vlogs of herself on the internet later in life. 

“The only person who knows my story is me,” said Vess-Ovsiannikov, who is now a computer science major at Boston University. “If someone made a compilation of those videos, I would feel very violated because I’m the only person who can explain why I did certain things in certain contexts. In Pamela Anderson’s case, that content is being compiled illegally, and I cannot even imagine how she felt being in that situation.”

Vess-Ovsiannikov appeared in commercials for Capital One and TMobile, did student work and even auditioned for Broadway as a child. She can recall having discussions with her parents about safety and exploitation early in life. 

“I think I definitely have some insider information when it comes to how stories and people can be manipulated to keep your viewership going,” Vess-Ovsiannikov said. “When it comes to documentaries and shows, I’ve worked with some people who seem passionate about being truthful and sending a message to people, but there are some people that if something looks cooler to them, they’d rather go with that than state facts.”

The sometimes conflicting relationship between reality and entertainment can be challenging to navigate for creators and harder to distinguish for audience members, leading to both confusion about the truth and ill consequences for the subject when the line is not clear. TV series as well as documentaries are not the exception for this misunderstanding.

“Pam & Tommy” is one of many shows that are based on the idea of a subject or person. The series changed timelines and formulated scenes that can’t be verified completely without video recording or first-hand accounts by the main subjects, who were not involved with the production. 

In one emotional scene, the couple mourns a miscarriage during the sex tape scandal, leading to Anderson destroying a paparazzo’s car. In reality, the miscarriage occurred months before the sex tape’s release, and Anderson did not destroy a paparazzo’s car. The scene was likely created to show the fevered animosity between the couple and paparazzi, leading to higher-drama content. 

“Fiction is part of everything,” Poister said. “Even the most sincere documentaries are the product of a person’s editing: choosing what to shoot, how to piece it together, what to believe in, what to take out.”

Historical fact can take part in both fiction and documentary film processes, but a documentary filmmaker generally forms an agreement with the audience to portray history –– events that are able to be fact checked with other sources –– as faithfully as possible while understanding that accuracy may be influenced by their choices, Poister said.

Anderson’s documentary may be a new example for future documentaries and films to acknowledge this singular perspective and bias for any medium, as even Anderson voiced her concerns on camera about influencing the narrative when the director asked her to read parts of her diaries. 

“I don’t know if I want to go there and read them,” Anderson said in one of her present-day discussions throughout the documentary. “It might give you more access if you have somebody else read them because I might say, ‘no, I don’t want to read this or that.’ So, you have my permission.”

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