by Dennis Lim
Published August 20, 2010 in New York Times
JEAN-LUC GODARD once observed that every fictional film is a documentary of its actors. Jacques Rivette finessed the aphorism, proposing that every film is a documentary of its own making, not only a record for posterity of the people in it but also a window into the culture that produced it.
In a very literal sense, all films have documentary aspects: once the camera is turned on, whatever is captured, no matter how staged, contains a trace of reality, an element of chance. The inverse is true as well: no documentary, whatever its claims to objective reportage, is ever devoid of manipulation, since a controlling hand is evident in even the most routine matters of camera placement and shot selection.
While these are truisms, obvious enough to anyone who has given these issues more than passing consideration, they have long been easy to forget in a film culture that conditions us to think of fiction and documentary as distinct forms. One of the most striking developments in recent world cinema is the emergence of films that resist precisely those categories, that could be said to blur or thwart or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, staking out instead a productive liminal zone in between.
One such film, “Our Beloved Month of August,” by the director Miguel Gomes, is at once a musical, a travelogue, a quasi-incestuous family melodrama, an ethnographic portrait of Portuguese folk traditions and an account of its own chaotic production. As he tells it, Mr. Gomes ventured into rural central Portugal a few years ago to make a fictional film against the backdrop of the region’s summer music festivals.
When the shoot ran into trouble, he and his crew began to document the people and places around them, as well as their own difficulties. (Mr. Gomes appears in the film, and his brick of a screenplay is deployed as a sight gag.) The finished film, which runs from Sept. 3 through 11 at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan as part of a Gomes retrospective, is not just unclassifiable, but also unstable from moment to moment: a documentary about the creation of a fiction, which overtakes the proceedings at points only to recede again.
Mr. Gomes breaks down categories in the service of an expansive, kaleidoscopic experience. But hybrid works can also occupy the minimalist end of the spectrum — as with “The Anchorage,” a film by C. W. Winter and Anders Edstrom, which opens Sept. 17, also at Anthology.
Pairing textured cinematography with intricate sound design, it observes a few days in the life of a middle-aged woman on a remote island in the Stockholm archipelago. She walks in the woods and swims in the sea; her daughter visits; a hunter passes by; the weather changes. The woman is played by Ulla Edstrom, Mr. Edstrom’s mother and a part-time resident of that Baltic island. Alert to everyday moments and the subtleties of the natural world, “The Anchorage” is an immersive depiction of a solitary, self-sufficient life, one that the actor to an extent shares with her character.
Cinephiles are by now accustomed to this kind of categorical confusion. The well-regarded Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, the subject of a recent DVD boxed set by the Criterion Collection, has spent years working in the Lisbon slum of Fontainhas, collaborating with its residents on films that are contemplative, highly stylized reflections of their actual lives.
Another festival regular, Ulrich Seidl of Austria, makes even more provocative use of hybrid forms. His unflinching documentaries, like “Animal Love,” about obsessive pet owners, incorporate staged scenes; his equally discomfiting fictional films use both nonprofessional actors and pungently real locations, which in his latest film, “Import/Export,” include an Internet-pornography sweatshop and a geriatric ward.
The tendency to mingle fiction and nonfiction can also be seen among emerging filmmakers. Pedro González-Rubio’s “Alamar,” a modest art-house hit this summer, is a sensuous record of an idyllic father-son fishing trip in the Mexican Caribbean: the stars are a real-life father and son, and the trip was conceived for the purpose of the film. Oscar Ruiz Navia’s “Crab Trap” is an atmospheric story of a drifter in a coastal Colombian village, invested less in narrative progression than in exploring a physical and psychological landscape. (It will be shown at the Latinbeat series at the Walter Reade Theater next month.)
In “You Are All Captains,” a debut feature shown at Cannes this year, the French-Spanish director Oliver Laxe uses his own experience teaching filmmaking to children in Tangiers, Morocco, to spark a playful rumination on the creative process and his outsider status.
These films are too disparate to amount to a movement, and it’s worth nothing that the underlying impulse is hardly new. The attraction to the real is hard-wired into a medium that began when the Lumière brothers took their camera out into the thick of daily life to make their “actuality films,” of a train entering a station or of workers leaving a factory.
In the 1940s, D. W. Griffith, lamenting the airlessness of studio-bound films, declared, “What’s missing from movies nowadays is the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.” It was an urge to confront reality that inspired Italy’s postwar neo-realists and the cinéma-vérité pioneers of the 1960s.
What’s striking about the present moment is just how widespread the taste for reality is among the major figures in world cinema, from the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, who is known for a kind of hall-of-mirrors neo-realism, to the recent Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul of Thailand, whose films combine surrealism and documentary realism.
Jia Zhangke , the leading Chinese filmmaker of his generation, has worked in fiction and nonfiction, sometimes combining the two and invariably using the metaphorically charged spaces of the new China as ready-made film sets.
For the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso, whose four features have all screened at Cannes, fictional frameworks are mere pretexts to shoot with specific people in specific places: the pampas, the jungles, the frozen wilds of Tierra del Fuego. His first film, “La Libertad” (2000), is based on months of observing a lone woodcutter’s daily routine.
The critic Robert Koehler, writing in Cinema Scope magazine, used the phrase “the cinema of in-betweenness” to describe films like “The Anchorage.” Many of these new hybrid films are in line with the artistic sensibility that the writer David Shields outlined in his recent polemic, “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” which deals mainly with literature but also invokes Werner Herzog, the poet laureate of the subjective documentary, and Sacha Baron Cohen, whose spasms of prankster performance art double as documentaries of bigotry.
The notion of a doc-fiction hybrid is so vast that it can encompass any number of permutations. But the most rewarding hybrid films are validations of the creative uncertainty principle. They bespeak if not a love of the world then at least a curiosity about it. They understand that the introduction of fact does not necessarily make fiction more real but possibly more strange. Inventing impure forms to match impure content, they can open up subtly new ways of seeing and thinking about movies. Most of all, they are expressions of what Mr. Alonso surely recognized when he titled his groundbreaking film “La Libertad”: freedom.