Between Documentary and Fiction: Art of the Real (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton
When discussing documentary cinema in interviews or master classes, the late Michael Glawogger often spurned the notion of “journalistic” or “objective” reality and emphasized the importance of the filmmaker’s vision in crafting films drawn from life. Although Glawoggger’s aesthetic agenda is congruent with John Grierson’s famous definition of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality,” mainstream commentators continue to reduce nonfiction to a monolithic style— a fusion of voice-over narration, interviews, and archival footage—that tends to mimic “long form” journalism and is a vital component of the vast majority of films screened on HBO and PBS.
“Art of the Real,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent series devoted to showcasing innovative documentary strategies (the first installment in what will be an annual event), offered both an alternative—or antidote, if you like—to mainstream nonfiction fare and an opportunity for New Yorkers to savor the most celebrated documentaries screened at key festivals such as Copenhagen’s CPH: Dox and Doc Lisboa. It’s evident to critics and programmers that a penchant for genre bending—dissolving the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction—has become the leading trend on the festival scene.
Art of the Real’s programmers—Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes—wisely provided a historical context to foil skeptics who assume that the “hybrid doc” is merely a voguish product of the festival zeitgeist. By programming Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1967), a salient example of what Rouch termed “ethno-fiction,” the series made room for a seminal precursor of what Robert Koehler labels the ascendant category of the “in-between” film—“a byproduct of our collective hyperconsciousness regarding cinema and its effects, so that the filmmaker knows that the audience knows the tricks the filmmaker is playing, and that intention is written in high relief.” Jaguar is often celebrated as a “picaresque” documentary, a chronicle of three young men’s often humorous escapades as they travel from Niger to Ghana to improve their lot in life. Blending fictional elements with the reflexes of observational cinema, Rouch’s protagonists mapped out their journey in advance and subsequently added an improvised commentary track embellishing their adventures. In this respect, Rouch’s African sojourn appropriates the slippery tradition of European travel writers, exemplified by the unreliable narrators of Marco Polo and John Mandeville’s travelogues, that characterized the literary landscape before “fiction” and “nonfiction” had calcified into seamless genres.
It goes without saying that, ever since Luis Buñuel skewered the po-faced clichés of documentary voice-over in Land Without Bread—and invented the mock documentary in the process—a certain salutary skepticism concerning the supposed “truth claims” of nonfiction cinema has become part of the critical arsenal. Art of the Real’s blurb trumpeting “a nonfiction showcase founded on the most expansive possible view of documentary film” might well serve as a credo for proponents of doc/fiction hybridism. It remains to be seen if this expanded view will eventually emerge as the new orthodoxy. (The FSLC’s mission statement is also reminiscent of a conversation I had several years ago with a globe-trotting critic who claimed that Doc Lisboa evinced an admirable tolerance for films that could be deemed “ten percent documentary and ninety percent fiction.”)
Recent debates on the validity of collapsing traditional distinctions between fiction and documentary reached a crescendo with the pre-Lincoln Center reception of Narimane Mari’s Bloody Beans, one of Art of the Real’s most critically touted titles. Mari’s film reflects the predilection of dabblers in the realm of the “in between” to embrace auteur cinema and veer away from, without necessarily disparaging, the hard-nosed reportage venerated by more traditional documentarians. It’s instructive that, while most critics have effusively praised Bloody Beans, its status as nonfiction provoked a fair amount of grumbling from at least one of its most gung-ho admirers. In Variety, Jay Weissberg was perturbed that “CPH:Dox (where Beans won the main prize) and Dubai programmed the film as a docu despite a total absence of nonfiction elements. If movies set in the past appear in docu sections merely because fashion spouts nonsense about permeable genre boundaries, then the treachery of relativism will have wreaked havoc on the very concept of reality.”
Of course, the fact that films like Bloody Beans are featured in “docu sections” signals something of a sea change in the prestige of documentaries, a genre once associated almost exclusively, if unfairly, with instructional films and aesthetically uninspired agitprop. Adjectives like “hallucinatory” and “reverie” pepper the positive reviews of this undeniable hybrid and the film has already garnered comparisons to Lord of the Flies, Zero for Conduct, and Rouch’s ethno-fictions (heady praise for any filmmaker). There is no question that Mari prefers a poetic rendering of reality to the prosaic variety preferred by adherents of what Bill Nichols once labeled “the discourse of sobriety”—a rubric that links mainstream nonfiction cinema with economics, politics, and history instead of the realm of the imagination.Bloody Beans begins with Mari’s nonprofessional cast of young adolescents (a gaggle of boys joined by a few spirited girls) immersed in apparently benign horseplay. They wolf down beans and make jejune fart jokes as they loll around an Algiers beach. Before long, the kids’ antics become harnessed to a more grandiose scheme, a full-scale re-enactment of the turbulent days of the Algerian Revolution. The incongruity of rambunctious kids discussing such weighty topics as the internal divisions within the French ranks, the role of the OAS, spousal abuse, and the bitter legacy of colonialism is part of a canny strategy of defamiliarization. Sequences in which the juvenile rebels confront a man in a pig mask abusing his wife and kidnap, and interrogate, a French soldier are more otherworldly than incendiary inasmuch as spectators are likely to be more preoccupied with the alienation effect of children assuming the roles of hard-bitten adults than persuaded by the allegorical resonance of these spectral re-enactments.
Bloody Beans’s cumulative impact is both puzzling and seductive. Unlike the protagonists of Jaguar, whose re-enactments derive from their own experience, the kids’ surface spontaneity is largely molded by a director’s predetermined scenario—par for the course in what is usually deemed fiction. More “magical neorealism” than faux documentary, the film ends with a handful of kids reciting lines from Antonin Artaud’s “Petit poéme des poissons de la mer”; the key line is “it is better to be than obey.” Calling this fantasia on themes derived from the Algerian Revolution a documentary reflects the diminished cultural capital of fiction in a world consumed by what David Shields terms “reality hunger.”
Even when narrative documentaries blur boundaries in a less muddled fashion, the willingness of “subjects” (a quaint nonfictional term for “protagonist”) to perform for the camera often riles documentary traditionalists. Films now accepted as classics (e.g., Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens) continue to intrigue despite accusations that wily directors exploited their vulnerable, if self-evidently hammy, subjects.
Robert Greene’s Actress, Art of the Real’s closing night film, is unlikely to be pilloried by scolds wielding yellowing texts on documentary ethics. Bringing to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous aphorism that every fiction film is a documentary of its actors, Greene’s protagonist is Brandy Burre, an actress best known for a recurring role on The Wire, who becomes resigned to raising a child and a life away from the professional fray in Beacon, New York. Melding vestiges of cinéma vérité with melodramatic interludes, Greene focuses on a woman whose dissatisfaction with a middle-class, domestic routine is, inevitably, accompanied by histrionics. Burre’s’ break-up with her husband, her household chores, and her audition for a coveted role are all equally inflected by a carefully crafted persona; she is indeed a consummate actress, supremely cognizant of how reality and performance are often inseparable. [See interview with Robert Greene elsewhere on this Website]
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game reaffirmed Art of the Real’s preference for auteurist documentaries that clearly reflect idiosyncratic, unapologetically personal perspectives. Like the equally acclaimed work of his Romanian colleagues— Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu—Porumboiu’s fiction films, with their fondness for languid long takes and an obstinately stationary camera, are often pegged as “documentary-like.” His brilliant debut feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and his ingenious follow-up, Police, Adjective, were both sly parables of the lingering impact of totalitarianism in post-Ceausescu Romania. His most recent feature, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is more in the vein of mock autobiography: a mordant, possibly self-indicting portrait of a director made risible by his self-importance.
Autobiographical red herrings are also crucial to the success of The Second Game, a Brechtian exercise laced with black humor that “refunctions” a grainy VHS tape of a 1988 soccer game. The concept is something of an artful con. Since the match pitted Steaua, surrogates of Ceausescu’s Army, against Dinamo, a team under the supervision of the dictator’s secret police, the audience naturally expects some hard-nosed political analysis. Moral certitude is, unsurprisingly, in short supply; the voice-over commentary by Porumboiu and his father, who refereed the game, is willfully perverse. They either refuse, or are unable to, formulate clear-cut connections between the match, which ended in an absurdist 0-0 finale that might have pleased Ionesco, and the impetus for the regime’s eventual demise. The elder Porumboiu’s interventions are halting attempts to explain how the teams’ off-field shenanigans, an account rife with hints of bribery and wide-scale corruption, collided with the near-impossible task of refereeing the game dispassionately. Instead, the filmmaker can only wryly compare the seemingly interminable match with his own films: “It’s long and nothing happens.”
Curiously enough, Art of the Real’s revival of a key “essay film,” a remastered and reedited print of Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s 1996 Red Hollywood, confirmed that some old-fashioned documentary virtues—literate voice-over, concerted research, and sagacious use of archival footage—can prove as innovative as more playful varieties of nonfictional trompe l’oeil. Red Hollywood mounts an energetic attack on the standard liberal argument, popularized by writers such as Stefan Kanfer and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that the blacklistees’ political convictions had little influence on the films they wrote and directed. Deriding Billy Wilder’s famous contention that “only two” of the Hollywood, or “Unfriendly” Ten were “talented—the rest were just unfriendly”—Burch and Andersen maintain that unapologetic communists, particularly writers such as Abraham Polonsky, Paul Jarrico, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, and Alfred Levitt, succeeded in honestly confronting quandaries of class, race, and sexual inequality despite the obvious constraints of the studio system.
There’s also something oddly satisfying about Red Hollywood’s straightforward polemical stance; while postmodern ambiguity may have its uses, there are never any lingering doubts about the precise nature of Burch and Andersen’s take on the blacklist era. Even while refurbishing the reputations of some overlooked films and Hollywood professionals once reviled as hacks, they can’t ignore the kitschy paeans to the Soviet Union embodied by Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow. These desultory contributions to movie lore are familiar to even the most dilettantish film buffs. The film is more notable for catalytic moments that highlight a class consciousness that has all but vanished from contemporary films. Clips from John Berry’s From this Day Forward and Rossen’s Body and Soul demonstrate that “the degradations of poverty were no longer glossed over.” A re-evaluation of crime films draws upon Andersen’s 1985 essay, also called “Red Hollywood,” and argues that communist writers did not view lawbreaking as, to use conservative parlance, “social disintegration.” Instead, Force of Evil, to cite a famous example, critiques racketeering as another form of “capital accumulation.” Red Hollywood is noteworthy for rescuing scores of films from obscurity; the clips are revelatory enough to hope that an ambitious repertory cinema will soon be compelled to program rarely revived films such as Sorority House, Success at Any Price, and Tom, Dick and Harry.
The wide range of documentaries in Art of the Real, from Bloody Beans’s metafictional strategies to Red Hollywood’s de facto “journalism” (if that’s not a dirty word), was refreshingly ecumenical. The liminal space between fiction and lived experience might sound like so much theoretical gobbledygook. But it truly came alive in one of the series’ most inspired shorts—Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns. Paying homage to her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty’s groundbreaking film Touki Bouki, Diop’s poetic documentary, enlivened by fictional interventions, provides a melancholy postscript to the vibrant days of the Senegalese New Wave. Adrift in a Dakar that has lost its revolutionary fervor, Magaye Niang, Touki Bouki’s star, can only look back at his past glory and yearn for his lost love and co-star, Myriam Niang. In an interview with Andréa Picard, Diop admits that a poignant phone call between Magaye and Myriam is a fictionalized version of a “real conversation.” Yet it matters little if A Thousand Suns is a semidocumentary, a poetic fantasy, or a pseudomemoir. Leaving aside generic hairsplitting, the film is a small triumph.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor, a freelance contributor to various film magazines, and a freelance instructor of cinema studies at New York University.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.