Reimagining Reality

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
(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
(2004) explores this theme, and Fitzcarraldo
(1982) portrays an impossible task that became the director’s

‘In making a movie about a crazy man carrying a boat up a
mountain, you actually carry a boat up a mountain,’ says

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

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

Further Viewing
Dig deeper into hybrid documentaries by seeking out these

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

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

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

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
-Annie Nocenti

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.