Mockumentaries, 'factions,' and the new, new journalism
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.'
Consider a few examples. Interview with the Assassin (2002) was presented as a documentary about a 'second gunman' in the assassination of President John Kennedy. For a viewer not versed in the 'mockumentary,' which uses the documentary form to tell a fictional story, it is possible to watch the film for a while and believe it's true. A documentary that explores the manipulation inherent in documentary filmmaking with much darker ramifications is The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993). While making Olympia in 1936, Riefenstahl shot the Olympic games by staging events and using narrative techniques. She shot high divers doing flips and ran some of the footage backward for better effect. Is this still documentary, if you cheat shots to get to the poetic grace of a dive?
Riefenstahl's 1935 film Triumph of the Will is considered a masterpiece of Nazi propaganda. This is perhaps the most dangerous example of the persuasive power of documentary. On the other end of the spectrum is the light, innocent manipulation in the recent hit Winged Migration. 'The footage of flying along on the wingtip of a bird,' Wilson points out, 'is of a bird that has been, from the day it hatched, used to people and cameras flying with it.'
'The stuff that is the most interesting and the most fertile to me are the films in which not only do I not know what is real, but I move past not knowing into not caring,' says Wilson. 'House of the Tiger King (2004) is a fantastic example. To this day I have no idea where the truth of the story leaves off and the fiction of it begins.' House of the Tiger King follows an explorer who thinks he's found a map to a lost city of gold in Peru and the documentary filmmaker who travels with him. 'They run out of food and film, and in the end, maybe this explorer got there, maybe he didn't,' says Wilson. 'There are indications that certain things have been fabricated.' But the film's director, David Flamholc, has called it a documentary.
Werner Herzog has long been fascinated with the membrane between what is real and what isn't. His mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness (2004) explores this theme, and Fitzcarraldo (1982) portrays an impossible task that became the director's obsession.
'In making a movie about a crazy man carrying a boat up a mountain, you actually carry a boat up a mountain,' says Wilson.
With the line between truth and fiction blurring in such fascinating ways, does the viewer require a more sophisticated perspective? 'I'd love to see more media literacy taught in school,' says Wilson. 'We need to be able to watch films and think critically about them, question their accuracy and perspective. You have to open up your mind for something that is true and false at the same time. But you can't police. You can't make rules for the filmmakers.'
Danish director Lars von Trier, who with Thomas Vinterberg was responsible for Dogme '95, a set of satirical rules for filmmaking, has come up with the 'Dogumentary' rules for documentaries. 'There are five instructions,' explains Wilson. 'One is to allow for feedback from the subject at the end of the movie-a required 90 seconds for the subject to talk about how he or she feels about being in the movie.'
Says Marshall, 'Audiences aren't going to grow in their ability to perceive truth in fiction, in real life, or on the screen unless they are challenged. It's necessary for the heart and mind to create a more grandiose specimen than what's there. That's how we fall in love. How documentary film will cross this next frontier-that's the really important question.'
For more information on the True/False Film Festival, go to www.truefalse.org.
Dig deeper into hybrid documentaries by seeking out these films:
Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) is an early anthropological 'documentary' about Inuit Eskimos that used real settings and nonactors but added a dramatic narrative.
Open City (1945) by Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini is a fictional film grounded in the techniques of documentary. Other notable neorealist films include Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) and Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952). Italian neorealism is both a technique and a genre, influencing Dogme '95 films and filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah.
Orson Welles' F for Fake (1974) is a playful documentary treatise on the impossibility of truth in film.
Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988) is a seminal documentary that used stylized reenactments to investigate a wrongful conviction.
Marc Levin made Slam (1998) in what he dubbed drama vrit style, using a mix of actors and real convicts, guards, and poets, set in a real prison.
Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), In This World (2002), and most recently The Road to Guantanamo (2006; see review on page 29) are fiction films so seamlessly constructed out of reality that it is difficult to tell they are not documentaries.
Cane Toads (1988), What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole (2006), and The American Ruling Class (2005) are examples of satirical mockumentary hybrids.
American Splendor (2003) is a narrative film
about the life of comic artist Harvey Pekar that uses the real
Pekar, an actor playing Pekar, and animated versions of