By Larry Rohter
Published in The New York Times on March 14th, 2014
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 nonfiction 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.
“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 immersive 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 that opens in New York on Wednesday, and “Manakamana,” which takes place entirely in a single cable car in Nepal and will open in theaters next month.
In many ways, “The Missing Picture,” which last spring won the top prize 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.
Confronted with the absence of family records and the relative paucity of official documents, Mr. 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.
“I’m not really very concerned when I’m starting a film whether it will be documentary or fiction,” he said in an interview late last year. “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.”
That creative restlessness and struggle with form also explicitly power Art of the Real, a documentary festival the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be holding next month. “The documentary as we have come to know it, especially in the United States, emphasizes content over form, information over aesthetics,” the festival’s program note says, adding that there is consequently a need “for the documentary to be reconsidered as art.”
“It’s not that there isn’t a lot of really worthwhile work in the field,” said Dennis Lim, the film society’s programming director (and a former contributor to The New York Times). “But I feel it gets dangerously close to being just informational or journalistic.” He added: “We’ve come to think of documentary and fiction as very distinct forms, but the line isn’t as clear-cut as we have been conditioned to think. There’s a lot of work that falls in between.”
Festival offerings include “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. “The Second Game” consists of the Romanian director Corneliu Porumbolu and his father, a soccer referee, watching a tape of a 1988 game and reflecting on the country’s history since then.
Also due out this spring, on April 25, is “Who Is Dayani Cristal?,” which uses two contrasting techniques to examine the problem of immigrants dying in the Arizona desert as they try to enter the United States illegally. One story line follows immigration agents and diplomats as they work to identify a corpse found near Tucson, while in the other, the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal travels the same route as the dead man and at times even assumes his identity.
Though more and more common, re-enactments remain a controversial tool, with this month’s Oscars illustrating that point. “The Missing Picture” received a nomination for best foreign-language film, but it did not even make the shortlist in the documentary category, and, in the clearest sign of internal divisions among documentary filmmakers, Sarah Polley’s much-praised and innovative “Stories We Tell” failed to get a nomination.
That film, in which Ms. Polley examined a question of paternity in her own family, won prizes from New York and Los Angeles critics groups and was the only documentary to be nominated for both Writers Guild and Directors Guild awards, winning the writers’ award. But members of the Academy’s documentary branch apparently balked at rewarding her for blending home movies with what she called “re-created” footage, all shot in Super 8.
“People were upset, mad that they got tricked, that their expectations of what they are going to see in a doc were violated,” said Michael Lumpkin, executive director of the International Documentary Association. “But I felt that made it an interesting viewing experience, and I didn’t react in anger.” The question, in his view, is: “Why should I care, if it’s a good film? That’s one of the points of the film, that all stories are constructed, and you do what you do to tell a story.”
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, and entities like HBO, CNN and Netflix have joined PBS in commissioning, broadcasting and distributing nonfiction films.
"Those are the three revenue streams right now; that’s where your money is going to come from,” said Pacho Velez, co-director, with Stephanie Spray, of “Manakamana.” That means that work is often made for the small screen. “But 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.”
The popularity of television reality shows, using techniques that originated in the documentary world, is also presenting a challenge to filmmakers. Audiences have grown inured to, if not suspicious of, supposedly candid observational “fly on the wall” television scenes that are actually often staged or scripted, in contrast to the more rigorous standards that prevail in film, and that, too, is forcing documentarians to find other ways to tell their stories.
One increasingly important center of innovation and experimentation with form is Harvard University. Three of the directors of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries studied at the film program there, and the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose web page states that it “opposes the traditions of art that are not deeply infused with the real” and “those of documentary that are derived from broadcast journalism,” has been the source of groundbreaking films like “Leviathan” and “Manakamana.”
In “Leviathan,” first released in 2012 and being shown again this week as part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial, cameras normally used in extreme sports were strapped to fishermen as they worked on the high seas, producing a visceral, disquieting and sometimes abstract experience that recalls the experimental films of Stan Brakhage. On the other hand, “Manakamana,” which is included in next month’s Film Society series and will open commercially April 18, at times brings to mind one of Andy Warhol’s audition films.
Shot with a single 16-millimeter camera mounted inside a cable car carrying pilgrims back and forth to a Hindu shrine in the mountains of Nepal, “Manakamana” has no voice-over and, for the first 20 minutes, no dialogue at all. Instead, in a series of 10-to-11-minute episodes, it observes the passengers as they talk to one another, react to the scenery, play musical instruments or, in one wryly amusing episode featuring a well-dressed woman and another who appears to be her servant, try to eat ice cream before it melts.
“So much of documentary film is meant to inform, educate or explain,” Mr. Velez said. “What I try to do in my films, and what sensory ethnography tries to do generally, is to seduce or engage, to give an experience that is more about the pleasures of narrative cinema, the emotional identification. I totally want the audience to identify with the characters and be invested with what happens to them, and if that’s entertainment, well, then we’re entertaining people.”