Reimagining Reality

Mockumentaries, 'factions,' and the new, new journalism

| July / August 2006

Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, released in 1969, is often cited as the first 'hybrid' documentary. A pioneer of cinema verité, Wexler wrote a fiction film and set it at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Wexler knew antiwar activists planned to be there, so he wrote riot scenes into his script. When the police and protesters clashed, Wexler's actors were there. When tear gas is thrown, someone in the film can be heard yelling, 'Look out, Haskell, it's real!' Afterward, the police even accused the film crew of provoking the riot to get their shots. The film ends with director Wexler behind the camera, shooting us, the viewers.

'The whole point of the film is, 'Don't necessarily believe me,' ' says Wexler in Tell Them Who You Are, a confrontational documentary about Wexler made by his son Mark in 2004.

Stephen Marshall's This Revolution (2005) is a fascinating homage to Medium Cool. Marshall set his fictional film at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. His actors, playing activists, were being filmed in the midst of the real protests when they got arrested. 'They mistook actress Rosario Dawson for a real protester,' says Marshall. 'For me, the most surreal moment was being in jail and having to rewrite the third act of a fictional movie because a documentary aspect had shifted the fictional aspect. I guess you could call the film 'faction,' since it's a fiction but the backdrop was totally real.'

Marshall is referring to the literary predecessor of the hybrid film, which can be traced to Truman Capote. When Capote wrote the book In Cold Blood, about two murderers, he chose to interview the killers but to write the story as a narrative, thus creating what is cited as the first 'faction.' Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and other literary journalists of the late '60s and early '70s were called the New Journalists, and they told real stories with the narrative devices of fiction. They exploded the form and lifted it to art. These days, documentary filmmakers are experimenting in a similar fashion, amping up their narratives with the cinematic syntax of fiction features.

'Literature, as an art form, has always preceded filmmaking,' says Marshall. 'The revolution of the New Journalists was to place themselves at the center of the story. Tom Wolfe created scenes that were so grandiose that it made him, as a nonfiction writer, able to compete against the fictional realm. The same thing is happening in documentaries.'

Experimental exploration in documentary film was the inspiration for the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, which has focused on hybrid docs since 2004. 'If you want to know what kind of art is really new,' says David Wilson, the festival's codirector, 'look for the stuff that's getting people really riled up and upset and confused.'