Creative realities

Documentaries

Creative realities

The very first movies were, in their way, documentaries: snippets that showed the trot of a horse, a smoke-belching train pulling into a station or Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession. But the paths of fiction and non-fiction film soon diverged, and they remain distinct today, each with separate standards and expectations and consigned to separate categories at festivals and the Oscars.

But documentary filmmakers, chafing at those rules, eager to broaden the variety of tools at their disposal and hoping to tell their stories to a wider audience, have been pushing aggressively at the boundaries of their genre. The traditional “A-roll, B-roll, talking heads” paradigm, influenced by journalism, is increasingly being challenged by experiments in which all of the standard features of the traditional documentary — like voice-over, music cues and narrative arcs based on real life — are being mutated or eschewed and devices from the world of fiction embraced.

Changing structure“It almost feels wrong to call the films that are coming out now documentaries,” said Richard Rowley, director of the Oscar-nominated Dirty Wars, which used film-noir techniques. “It sounds like we are stenographers, filing away records for future generations to see what life was like here, not storytellers. But there’s a huge body of docs being produced now that are as impressive and transformational as a well-constructed fiction film.”

There were indications of that approach in this year’s Oscar race, in which one of the nominees was The Act of Killing, a documentary about mass slaughter in Indonesia that relied heavily on re-enactments by members of the death squads that committed the original crimes. But it is even more evident in a crop of new documentaries that includes The Missing Picture, a memoir of genocide in Cambodia, and Manakamana, which takes place entirely in a single cable car in Nepal.

In many ways, The Missing Picture, which last spring won the top prize at the Cannes festival’s Un Certain Regard competition for “original and different” work and was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category, is a hybrid. An intensely autobiographical account of the genocide the Khmer Rouge inflicted on Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, the film is directed by a survivor, Rithy Panh, and uses techniques unusual in documentaries.Limited resourcesConfronted with the absence of family records and the relative paucity of official documents, Panh, 49, had to search hard to find substitutes. He ended up using clay figures set in dioramas and mixed in whatever grainy archival footage he could find, along with Khmer Rouge songs and speeches, dream and fantasy sequences, and a haunting original score, topping all that off with a hallucinatory, poetic, French-language narration.

“When you’re making a documentary, you don’t have actors, but nonetheless, there is a writing process that does take place in the editing room. Every time you are getting ready to make a shot in a documentary film, you are asking yourself questions about your cinematographic approach. You are approaching the truth, but the image is never the truth itself.”

Yet another film in focus is Actress, an observational documentary about the comeback efforts of Brandy Burre (The Wire), in which it is sometimes not clear whether she is performing for the camera or just “being herself”. Bloody Beans begins with footage of children playing on a beach, then turns into a metaphoric re-enactment of Algeria’s war for independence.

Recent years have often been regarded as a golden age for documentary films, and to some extent that is true, at least on a superficial level. Film festivals now devote more attention than ever to the genre. Pacho Velez, co-director, with Stephanie Spray, of Manakamana, said “People go to the movies to be lost in images and sounds. We need to be asking: What does it mean to make work for the big screen, and that’s something I don’t think all documentarians are doing.”

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