Why Do We Want Documentaries To Be Like Fiction Films?


Goran Olsson’s Concerning Violence, which just debuted at Sundance, quotes heavily from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, including some of the book’s final suggestion that Africa and the Americas should be pioneers and “take [humanity] to another level than the one where Europe has placed it.” It’s similar to arguments against assimilation of minorities, the urge not to try to fit in with the white, Western norm but find a distinctly separate identity and purpose. And although this is perhaps a stretch of analogy, it also made me think about documentaries that either try to be indistinguishable from fiction narrative films or are at least sold as such by critics and marketers. Shouldn’t documentaries have their own identity and purpose, too, and shouldn’t we want them to be on another level?

First, I should confess that I’m definitely one of those critics who regularly mention if a doc feels or looks or plays like a narrative film. I sorta did so recently with my Sundance review of Sepideh (“almost never reminding us that what we’re watching is a documentary”). We do it because we assume that will appeal to more people who wouldn’t watch a doc unless it didn’t seem like a doc. Frankly, it’s the truth. Documentary is losing its stigma more and more each year, in part because of the blurring line between nonfiction and fiction in many films, but it’s still a ghettoized form of cinema.

Many critics would like to see the categorization disappear. They don’t like to separate docs from fiction titles in their year-end lists. They see film festival program compartmentalization as limiting and now often too simplistic for the more complicated hybrids popping up. And there are others who like the distinction of being doc lovers, having festivals and awards wholly devoted to nonfiction cinema and generally celebrating their being something else. Some of us even start websites for the purpose of solely covering nonfiction movies and television. There’s room for both groups, for sure.

Just as it’s hard to imagine what kind of alternative way of thinking Fanon had in mind when he called on his “comrades” to “create a new man,” it’s also hard to entirely see documentary as being isolated from the rest of cinema. But the mode long ago saw development of different ways of thinking and seeing and communicating in a different sort of visual language. If some of those elements became stale and stigmatizing, filmmakers can try other elements rather than abandoning them for the elements of fiction narrative language.

Or there’s the opportunity to play with traditional devices. Lately we’ve been seeing experimentation with talking head style interviews, archival compilation and reenactment that makes for riveting nonfiction storytelling that is nothing like we get in narrative films. The best nonfiction films of 2013 were incomparable to fiction and traditional documentary, works like The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, Leviathan, This Ain’t California, ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Let the Fire Burn used tools and resources for cinema in ways we’ve never seen seen done before, regardless of the mode, but their achievements are exclusive to documentary.

By that I don’t mean that fiction films can’t now borrow from those films’ innovation but such innovation couldn’t have originated with fiction cinema because the power and significance of the new style and form comes from the relationship those documentary films have to truth and reality, how they inform and/or address some issue of actuality or history or both. They actively confront problems with fresh means of trying to solve them — and by problems, I don’t just mean stuff like genocide but also challenges of how we think about and see ourselves and the world. Those are films that blur the line of reality but not of narrative and documentary.

The two most distinct documentary formats right now have to be the sensory ethnography work associated specifically with Harvard’s lab, from which we’ve gotten Leviathan, Foreign Parts and Manakamana, and the “historical verite” compilation work, including Let the Fire Burn, Senna, How to Survive a Plague and parts of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (I have to acknowledge it since director Shola Lynch coined the term in quotes).

Yet so far, from what I’ve been limited to seeing out of Sundance and elsewhere, my favorite docs so far this year aren’t so groundbreaking. There’s Sepideh, which as I stated is a great nonfiction film that often feels like a work of fiction. There’s Life Itself, which is just a perfect example of traditional, interview-heavy biographical profile, albeit one with a lot of fresh ideas of form represented throughout. And there’s The Overnighters which is just exceptional experiential cinema. The latter two are hardly describable as being anything like fiction films, instead reminding us that the doc mode doesn’t need to ignore its distinct conventions to be engaging art and entertainment.

None of this discussion is new, I admit, but with documentary we tend to keep revisiting the same topics of conversation whether on panels or in criticism, because much of it is impossible to come to a conclusion on. I’m not looking for a consensus on whether docs should or shouldn’t strive to be like narrative film, and there won’t be one anyway — except maybe the notion that there’s room for everything. I would, however, like to cease using the crutch of labeling docs like fiction films as an absolute mark of praise and endorsement.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.