There is no such thing as purely nonfiction cinema. The corollary is, of course, that there is no such thing as purely fiction cinema either. Every film ever made has elements of both. The theoretical arguments here are a complicated bundle of ideas for another time, but the basic point is this: the line we have drawn between narrative and documentary doesn’t make very much sense.
Somewhere between Nanook and today we got lost. The classics of American documentary cinema, including not just the work of Robert Flaherty but also films like On the Bowery and The Savage Eye, did not divorce themselves from either fiction or narrative. Yet now many of us understand the term “documentary” as a narrow genre rather than a wider form, in spite of the enormous and diverse body of work one could gather under the title. What was once a porous boundary has become a solid wall, at least in our perceptions, that allows for only one form for nonfiction cinema. Too many films are evaluated on the same scale, with the goal being the sort of informative entertainment that tends to win Oscars.
Meanwhile, works that try to subvert the dominant form or dare to blur the borders of truth itself are often met with confusion and outrage. The Act of Killing has even provoked entire articles proclaiming rules for how to make a documentary, as if such a guidebook isn’t inherently opposed to the whole idea of art in the first place. Even now, as American filmmakers re-evaluate these lines, our language is influenced by our stilted categories. “Hybrid” and “chimera,” in a way, imply the fusing of discrete cinematic forms that we shouldn’t have separated in the first place.
So we have something of a problem. Enter the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Art of the Real, a sizable new series programmed by Dennis Lim and Rachel Rakes. The goal is to present the widest possible variety of works that fall under the heading of documentary cinema. Fifty films will be shown, including both features and shorts, in the most ambitious event of its kind in recent memory. The idea behind this vast and very diverse program is to show, essentially, that the words “documentary,” “fiction” and “art” are in no way mutually exclusive.
Looking over the list of films can be overwhelming for a number of reasons. As if to illustrate the silliness of boundaries, any at all, the programmers have extended the series across six continents and six decades. The selection is so rich that these surface distinctions begin to mean nothing. Any double feature will lead to fascinating connections and counterpoints, insights that might surprise you.
Start, though, by thinking about the formal borders of the word “documentary.” Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game, one of two opening night features, is an old VHS tape of an old Communist-era Romanian soccer game with voiceover of the director chatting with the referee (his father). Rather than presenting the political and social nuances of both television and sport under Nicolae Ceausescu, Porumboiu excavates it bit by bit from this aging videotape with the help of family memory.
Other films take equally bold formal steps away from what we might consider “mainstream” documentary aesthetics. Eric Baudelaire’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images matches the testimony of its subjects with the alienating images of urban landscapes, taking the words of these political activists and revolutionaries and re-politicizing them.
Amel El Kamel’s furtively gorgeous The Garden on Both River Banks, meanwhile, doctors documentary images of a faded French town to capture the eerie stasis that the death of the textile industry has caused.
Time Goes by Like a Roaring Lion is a film built to mimic the lifeline of its filmmaker, who has matched its running time to his German male life expectancy. Bouncing between anecdotes related to chronophobia (the fear of time’s passing), sequences in the salt flats of Bolivia where time and space seem to briefly cease and autobiographical detail, it is one of the wittiest and most innovative documentaries of the year.
One could go on and on about the films that apply strange new formal ideas to documentary subjects. The focus on the work of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab underlines this as well, though their aesthetic innovations are perhaps more deliberate than they are uncanny. Yet beyond these pioneering documentaries there are works that tackle something else entirely, chipping away at the wall we have imagined between fiction and nonfiction.
Amie Siegel’s short films impose fictional elements on top of very real landscapes, putting her two works chosen here in dialogue with the above films by Baudelaire and El Kamel. Black Moon and Winter are post-apocalyptic visions of survival set to real, contemporary architectural spaces in the United States and New Zealand. Siegel sees the hidden truth in these strange wonders of design, be they hollow ghosts of American consumerism or eccentric and wistful monuments to an Australasian future.
Other films seem much more grounded in fiction. Narimane Mari’s Bloody Beans relives the Algerian revolution through the imagination of young children she finds on the beach. The documentary element here is the national memory of these non-actors rather than the game they have chosen to play.
Lisandro Alsono’s La Libertad is a fiction film that looks and feels exactly like a calm, pastoral documentary about a woodcutter in Argentina.
Davi Pretto’s Castanha is maybe the most thrilling of these narrative works, in which an aging drag performer and his mother live their real lives before the camera while also performing the obviously staged death of a young family member.
Or is it obviously staged? Castanha, like most of the films in this series, leaves the audience with a great many questions. Pretto does not explain everything, choosing to focus on beauty and artistic power rather than transparency and simplicity. Art of the Real is, in a sense, an effort to upend our notion that documentaries are supposed to answer questions. These films challenge us and each other, especially when viewed so close together in a festival setting. They inspire a rich, fecund confusion that retains our interest in spite of our sometimes visceral bewilderment.
Finally, this series makes the crucial point that none of this is new. The older films chosen are equally complicated and confidently open, demonstrating years and years of formally revolutionary documentary cinema. Jean Rouch’s Jaguar, Alberto Grifi’s Anna, Derek Jarman’s Blue and others are classics not to be missed. The presence of these films underlines the fact that perhaps this current crisis we are having with the definition of documentary cinema is our own fault, as critics and audiences.
It’s hard to say when exactly our current notion of documentary as a narrow, discrete genre separate from narrative cinema arose, and Art of the Real is hardly concerned with finding this moment of original sin. Instead, this program looks forward. As American filmmakers more confidently step into the gray space between fiction and nonfiction, and as they experiment formally with the boundaries of documentary, we need to be more open to leaving the theater full of exciting, vital questions about the nature of reality. Any randomly chosen handful of the films presented here will do just that.
Art of the Real runs April 11–26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center