Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, but both impulses certainly exert a powerful pull on the filmmaking instinct. With so many established narrative directors over the years turning their hand to documentaries, whether it’s “making of,” band documentaries, or passion projects that they use to create greater awareness of the issues that are closest to their hearts, it’s a well-trodden path. And while they’re treading that path, they get to wave at the men and women coming in the opposite direction: documentarians make the crossover into narrative just as frequently. This week’s release of “How I Live Now” (our review is here) from Kevin Macdonald is another example of how, for some directors, the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction is one they can criss-cross time and again throughout their careers—it’s a fiction film, but Macdonald’s been alternating between the formats evenly for the last decade or so.
Of course the storytelling instinct may be the same, even if the approach is necessarily different, but not every talent is as suited to the bigger budgets (mo’ money, mo’ problems) and more rigid production of features, as it is to the unpredictability and other frustrations of documentary filmmaking. Still others attempt to blur or eradicate that division altogether, knitting fictional elements like dramatic reconstructions or overtly manipulated imagery into their documentaries, and bringing realist elements of shooting style or even casting to their fictions. We’re taking this opportunity to examine ten directors who work or have worked in both formats to see what they bring to each, and how each impacts on the other.
The Scottish filmmaker comes from an impressive line of filmmakers: his grandfather was Emeric Pressburger, who with Michael Powell made classics like “A Matter Of Life & Death,” “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus,” while older brother Andrew is Danny Boyle‘s long-time producer on the likes of “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.” Macdonald made his first foray into documentary with a film about his grandfather, 1995’s “The Making of an Englishman,” his films reaching wider and wider audiences until he made his fiction debut with “The Last King of Scotland” in 2006. Macdonald hasn’t yet left documentary behind, though: “Marley” was released only last year.
Notable Documentaries: Breathless survival tale “Touching the Void,” with its hugely impressive dramatic reconstructions, was the one that launched Macdonald into Hollywood’s orbit, but we prefer “One Day In September,” a gripping, near-definitive retelling of the attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich games. Undoubtedly influential on Steven Spielberg‘s later “Munich,” it sheds new light on that terrible day by impressively landing an interview with the surviving terrorist. But it’s more than just an interview: Macdonald gives it the heft and zip of a thriller, and it rightly won the Documentary Oscar in 2000.
Notable Fiction Films: Macdonald’s four fiction films to date (a fifth, “Black Sea,” is coming next year) all have something to recommend them without quite proving to be exceptional. We’re fonder than most of “State of Play,” a decent, but flawed attempt to push the acclaimed BBC miniseries into two hours, which has a brace of fine performances, including Russell Crowe’s best of the last decade. But his latest, “How I Live Now,” might be Macdonald’s best fiction film to date: an admirably unflinching and uncompromised adaptation of a post-apocalyptic young adult favorite that’s closer to “Come & See” than “The Hunger Games.”
Which Form Suits Him Better? Tough to say—Macdonald’s best films are unquestionably his documentaries, but his more recent work in that form—“Life In a Day” and “Marley” have felt a bit insipid and half-hearted. Meanwhile, his fictional work is all flawed in one way or another, but he certainly seems to be finding his feet if “How I Live Now” is any indication. We’ll be keeping an eye on “Black Sea” carefully.
The justly revered Kieślowski is better known nowadays, and certainly abroad, for his later fiction work, especially that which teamed him with screenwriter (and current member of Polish parliament) Krzysztof Piesiewicz. But in fact the early part of his career is dotted with more than twenty short documentary films, interspersed only occasionally with fiction pieces. And unlike many other filmmakers who drift from one form to the other, Kieślowski, ever the philosopher, had a genuine, moral reason for turning away from documentary and embracing fiction: as time went on he became increasingly uncomfortable with what he saw as a documentarian’s “intrusion” into private lives. And as long as he remained interested in the inner life and morality of his subjects, he began to believe that it was only through fiction that he could truthfully portray that. Kieślowski died at the tragically early age of 54 in 1996, but remains one of the most influential and admired filmmakers of all time.
Notable Documentaries: We can’t say we’ve seen every one of them, and some of the earliest are difficult to track down, but from his first professional doc, the 17-minute “Factory,” it’s already astonishing how firm Kieślowski’s command of the medium is and how subtle and brilliant the result can be. It simply cross cuts between a largely impenetrable debate raging amongst the suits upstairs at a tractor factory about quotas and deliveries and blame, and the men at the coalface as they wordlessly go about the physical grunt work. But in this short time the film is everything: satirical, allegorical, angry and ironic. The same impulses show in many others: “Hospital” shows a streak of black humor as it pits stoic and selfless doctors and nurses against a backdrop of failing infrastructure; “I Was A Soldier” is a vehement anti-war statement as a group of veterans describe how they were blinded. But between the censoring of 1971’s “Workers ‘71” and the use of 1980’s “Station” by the police to try and find evidence against a potential murderer, Kieślowski became progressively more disenchanted with the form and its potential for truthfulness.
Notable Fiction Films: Few directors can claim anything like the consistent, always-getting-better brilliance that Kieślowski displayed, especially in his last five titles (or 14, depending on how you count TV mini-series “Decalogue”). So, after “Decalogue” came “The Double Life of Veronique” followed by the ‘Three Colors’ trilogy: ‘Blue,’ ‘White’ and ‘Red.’ All of these are vital pieces of work, and the brutal “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love” (based on a story from “Decalogue”) are scarcely a step behind them too.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Kieślowski’s documentary work is fascinating, but more so now that we can trace the evolution of the fiction filmmaker who became one of the greatest masters of the medium, and of whom so many of our most revered modern auteurs are in awe.
A Chicago native, Steve James is as responsible as anyone for the mainstream success of the documentary: his first full feature, the epic “Hoop Dreams,” was a genuine crossover hit, and one of the best-reviewed films of the 1990s (even winning a Best New Filmmaker award from the MTV Movie Awards, of all places). Soon after that film, he was snapped up for his Hollywood debut, a biopic of runner Steve Prefontaine.
Notable Documentaries: It’s probably a bit overblown to call “Hoop Dreams” a game-changer of big-screen documentaries, but along with Errol Morris, it’s James’ film that really helped to bring the form closer to the mainstream, and it stands as a towering masterpiece of the form. Virtually everything James has touched in the non-fiction world has been hugely compelling, from “Stevie” to ESPN “30 for 30” entry “No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson,” but 2011’s “The Interrupters,” another look at Chicago life, is right up there with “Hoop Dreams” as one of his finest achievements.
Notable Fiction Films: James has only stepped away from documentary three times, for a back-to-back run in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Of the trio, the only one to get a theatrical release was 1997’s “Prefontaine,” a biopic of long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine (Jared Leto) who died at the age of only 24. The film’s not quite as interesting as Robert Towne‘s “Without Limits,” which followed the same subject matter a year later, starring Billy Crudup in the lead role, and James’ attempts to mix in documentary-style interviews is a bit botched, but it’s a worthy attempt at drama. Two more sports dramas followed, both made for TV: “Passing Glory,” starring Andre Braugher and Rip Torn, and the better “Joe and Max,” about the friendship between African-American boxer Joe Louis and German heavyweight Max Schmeling.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Unquestionably, the documentary. James’ fiction work is decent, and we’d like to see him turn his hand to something away from the sports genre he was initially pigeonholed in. But they’re never more than decent, whereas he’s never made a documentary that’s really anything other than excellent. As such, we’re eagerly anticipating his Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” when it arrives in 2014.
If any documentarian is truly at the coalface of the debate about documentary and reality, and how far, by simply choosing to tell a story in a certain way, the filmmaker influences, shapes and distorts the truth of that story, it’s probably Nick Broomfield. While starting off as a more traditional documentarian (filming in a less obtrusive, more outwardly “objective” style), Broomfield became so exasperated by the experiences both of Broadway musical doc “Driving Me Crazy” and being sued by Lily Tomlin over “Lily Tomlin” which she believed acted as a spoiler for the one-woman show it featured, that he started to insert himself directly into his films’ narratives. This meta edge, in which the film becomes as much about Broomfield and the making of the film as it does about the subject, has found many high-profile imitators, not least Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. In recent years, however Broomfield has also proposed a new format, what he calls “direct cinema” which uses non-actors, who are often themselves involved or close to the events being portrayed, but in a scripted, albeit heavily improvised, film.
Notable Documentaries: Probably most famous in the U.S. is Broomfield’s “Kurt & Courtney,” which was the subject of an attempt at suppression by Courtney Love herself. “Soldier Girls” won Sundance in 1981, and other noteworthy docs include his diptych about Aileen Wuornos—“Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”—as well as films about Margaret Thatcher and Heidi Fleiss.
Notable Fiction Films: Broomfield really only has two to his name so far, but they are both exceptional. “Ghosts,” his first film to adhere to his “direct cinema” manifesto, is a wrenching and enraging account of the illegal immigrant issue in Britain as demonstrated by the tragedy in which 23 Chinese workers drowned while digging for cockles. He followed this with a deeply compelling account of the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha during the Iraq War, “Battle for Haditha,” which proved, unsurprisingly, far more divisive on release for its uncompromising depiction of the attack as an act of reprisal by U.S. forces.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Broomfield is a pioneer documentarian, no doubt, his legacy in that regard is assured and his confrontational, shock-tactic style has been profoundly influential. However of late it has felt a little like he may be tiring of the sound of his own exasperation, with the recent “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!” being one of his worst-received docs and feeling pretty rote by comparison with his usual firebrand approach. Word’s been quiet recently on his fully-fledged fiction adaptation “The Catastrophist,” which once had the eclectic cast of Steve Coogan, Stephen Dorff and rapper K’naan attached, but we’re certainly curious to see what a potentially energizing return to narrative filmmaking might produce.
One of the few film directors to become a true household name, it wasn’t long after Spike Lee‘s 1986 feature debut “She’s Gotta Have It” that he was adorning Nike adverts and becoming a fixture at Knicks game, even as his work became more and more accomplished. Lee came to documentary relatively late, with 1997’s “4 Little Girls,” but since then has made over a dozen non-fiction works (when you include concert and performance movies like “The Original Kings Of Comedy” and “Passing Strange,” at least).
Notable Documentaries: Quality-wise, there’s little to choose between the devastating “4 Little Girls,” his documentary debut, and 2006’s epic two-parter “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts.” The former, rightly nominated for an Oscar, is an enormously powerful, enraging and compassionate story about the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, which killed four young girls. The latter, which clocks in at over four hours (eight if you include the 2010 semi-sequel “If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise“), focuses on a more recent tragedy, Hurricane Katrina and the devastating effect it had on the city of New Orleans. Humane, but sharp, it remains the definitive cinematic take on Katrina to date.
Notable Fiction Films: Though there’s a few other contenders for the greatest fiction work in Lee’s catalogue (“Malcolm X,” “25th Hour“), it has to be “Do The Right Thing” that wears the crown—Lee’s third film, and one of the best American films of the 1980s. Set across a long, sweltering single Brooklyn day, which gradually becomes a ticking time-bomb of hate and misunderstanding, it’s an incendiary piece of work that’s also enormously funny and entertaining. For all the quality of Lee’s other films, this is the most miraculous of them all.
Which Form Suits Him Better? We genuinely consider “Do The Right Thing” to be in our all-time top five, but Lee’s fiction films can be wildly inconsistent: for every “25th Hour,” there’s a “She Hate Me.” Whereas his documentary work is more consistently strong: even the more disposable likes of “Bad 25” are normally beautifully achieved. There’s certainly an argument to be made that he’s even more accomplished as a documentarian than as a feature director, but at the same time, we wouldn’t want him to hang up his fiction hat any time soon.
When people talk about the tradition of British social realism in cinema, pretty much the first name they reach for is that of Ken Loach. An overtly left-wing filmmaker with an uncompromising and undimmed social agenda, Loach’s passion about current and historical issues from homelessness and poverty to colonialism and Thatcherism informs his body of work across both documentary and narrative formats. But while he’s probably more celebrated (he has a Palme d’Or, an Ecumenical Jury Prize and two Special Jury Prizes from Cannes over the years) for his fiction work, word is that after the currently shooting “Jimmy Hall,” he may retire from it altogether, possibly to concentrate more on documentaries. Maybe this is because, while he hardly seems it, Loach is 77, and in his words from our interview earlier this year, documentaries are “a lot easier. The alarm doesn’t have to go at 6 in the morning… doing an archive documentary is very civilized.”
Notable documentaries: Loach’s first documentary was also his first brush with controversy: he was hired by charity Save the Children to make 50-minute documentary “The Save the Children Fund Film.” However Loach was angered by the charity’s “neo-colonial attitude” and by some of the employees’ views on the parents of the poorest children, and produced a film that the fund not only refused to pay for, but tried to have destroyed. The resulting legal battle nearly bankrupted Loach’s fledgling Kestrel Films. In the ’80s he experienced the suppression and/or censorship of several of his TV documentaries, including “Questions of Leadership” and miners’ strike doc “Which Side Are You On?” which was only aired after it won a major prize at the Berlinale. Most recently, Loach brought us “The Spirit of ‘45,” an archival/interview-based film about the establishment of the welfare state in Britain during the postwar reconstruction years.
Notable Fiction Films: “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” won Loach the Palme d’Or, and indeed, he’s often been successful at Cannes, where “Raining Stones,” “Land and Freedom” and “Hidden Agenda” were also honored. But 1969’s “Kes,” just his second film, was the one that established him and is still a benchmark movie in British cinema. Since then he’s been prolific, so everyone will have their personal favorites, but we’d have to number “Riff-Raff,” “Sweet Sixteen” and “My Name Is Joe” up there too, not least for the breakthrough roles they gave to actors like Peter Mullan and Martin Compston.
Which Format Suits Him Better? Loach’s work in both areas is never less than intelligent, convincing and passionately argued, but when he has put that fire in service of a narrative which a wider audience will experience, the results have often been exceptional. The specificity of his documentary subjects sometimes restricts their relevance (or a distributor’s idea of it, anyway) and their rather unadventurous format (talking heads/archive footage) often make them feel resolutely small-screen—in fairness the medium for which they are often designed. So we’re going to go with fiction, here, though we’ll take whatever Loach we can get.
Not as big a name as some on this list, Marsh has been doing some sterling work in both the fictional and non-fictional worlds for a decade or so. Starting out as an editor, then on some arts documentaries for the BBC (Marvin Gaye doc “Troubleman” is particularly worth a watch), Marsh moved into documentary features with 1999’s “Wisconsin Death Trip,” and made his feature debut six years later with “The King.”
Notable Documentaries: The eerie, atmospheric “Wisconsin Death Trip,” a beguiling mix of drama and documentary, is quite remarkable and deeply underrated, but his greatest success in the form came with 2008’s “Man On Wire.” The rare kind of doc that’s genuinely cinematic, it’s a thrilling, moving and brilliantly made piece of work, and was a worthy Oscar winner in 2009. 2011’s “Project Nim” isn’t quite as good, but it’s still very strong.
Notable Fiction Films: Marsh’s fiction debut, Southern Gothic tragedy “The King,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt and Paul Dano, was divisively received when it premiered at Cannes in 2005, and went unnoticed by most audiences, but it’s well worth seeking out. A few years later, Marsh would direct the second (and to this writer’s mind, the strongest) of the “Red Riding” trilogy, and followed it up last year with the sterling IRA thriller “Shadow Dancer.” Like Macdonald, he arguably hasn’t knocked one out the park yet, but it may only be a matter of time—perhaps on Stephen Hawking biopic “Theory Of Everything,” which shoots soon with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Which Form Suits Him Better? His work across the two forms is very different, but up to now, the documentary’s proved more consistent in quality. That said, he’s straddled the two worlds nicely so far.
It’s rare that an auteur arrives on the scene fully formed from their debut, but that’s pretty much what happened when Claire Denis, prior to that an assistant/second unit director to people like Wim Wenders, Costa Gavras and Jim Jarmusch, made her first film, the brilliant and beautiful “Chocolat.” Setting the enigmatic and slightly dreamlike tone that a lot of her films embody, since then Denis has carved out a small but immensely impressive body of work, often featuring her recurring motifs of colonialism, the immigrant experience and outsider-ness, especially as it pertains to her country of birth, France. While she reportedly does not consider herself a political filmmaker (and her films are too highly individual to be really be regarded as such) most of her work is socially engaged and profoundly concerned with the issue of cultural perspective, often heightened by the extraordinary power of her imagery.
Notable Documentaries: Denis has only made three feature-length documentaries (we’re counting the two parts of ‘Jacques Rivette‘ as one), of which the first, “Man No Run,” in which she follows Cameroonian band Les Tetes Brulees (whom she met while filming “Chocolat”) on their first tour of France, is very hard to track down. “Jacques Rivette, The Nightwatchman,” which was commissioned for French TV, is a fascinating, meandering conversation between New Wave filmmaker Rivette (“Celine and Julie Go Boating,” “Out 1,” “The Nun”) and Cahiers du Cinema critic Serge Daney. And, best of all 2005’s “Vers Mathilde” is a beautiful and oddly reflexive film about the creative process of dancer and choreographer Mathilde Monnier.
Notable Fiction Films: Aside from “Chocolat,” Denis’ most celebrated films are “Beau Travail,” “White Material” and “35 Shots of Rum” with her forays into more thrillerish territory with “Trouble Every Day” and this year’s “Bastards” meeting a much more mixed reception.
Which Format Suits Her Better? Undoubtedly Denis is a fiction filmmaker first and foremost, though a little like Agnes Varda, she incorporates elements of social realism into her fiction work in a way that suggests a more porous divide between the two. And “Vers Mathilde,” a fascinating document of dedication, creativity and the sheer beauty of movement, has moments that are among the most Denis-iest we’ve seen, with her camera coolly worshipping the wordless dance sequences, all set to a haunting, pulsating P.J. Harvey score.
Though his career has been going on for nearly fifty years, German maverick Werner Herzog has had something of a revival in the last decade, becoming a cult figure, to the extent that he even played the villain in Tom Cruise blockbuster “Jack Reacher.” But all the jokes and oddities don’t overshadow that Herzog has had one of the most prolific and consistently fascinating runs in contemporary cinema, and he’s flitted between documentary and feature consistently since the 1960s.
Notable Documentaries: Though we can’t claim to have seen every non-fiction film that Herzog’s made, it’s his documentary work of the last couple of decades that’s the best regarded (though early fare like “The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner” and “Ballad Of The Little Soldier” are worth checking out too). From “Little Dieter Needs To Fly,” which inspired Herzog’s fictional retelling “Rescue Dawn,” to the powerful death row documentary “Into The Abyss” and the TV follow-up series “On Death Row,” via surprise hit ‘Grizzly Man” and the impressive 3D “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams,” the work has been consistently rich, though our favorite might be “My Best Fiend,” his touching tribute to frequent collaborator/adversary Klaus Kinski.
Notable Fiction Films: And although Herzog’s made some recent gems too, only a fool would consider the very best of his work to be outside his collaborations with Kinski (Though “The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser,” in the same period but without Kinski, is right up there too). The pick of the bunch might vary depending on mood—”Aguirre: The Wrath Of God,” “Nosferatu” and “Fitzcarraldo” could all stake their claim easily. But as a body of work, there’s no doubt that Herzog was at his best when Kinski was around.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Depends on which period of Herzog we’re talking about. If we’re discussing the Herzog of the 1960s and 1970s, his collaborations with Kinski easily outshine his documentary output. If we’re discussing present day Herzog, his documentaries easily feel like his more significant work (and, to be honest, where his heart is these days).
Often dubbed the “mother of the New Wave,” Agnès Varda’s early career is remarkable for how she came onto the scene in 1955 with her first fiction feature, “La Pointe Courte,” and in it, demonstrated a visual flair (she was a photographer) and a unique melding of storytelling, philosophy and docu-realism that was almost shockingly fully developed for a novice. Throughout her career she shifted between documentary and fiction films, but all of her films to a certain extent synthesize elements of both, giving her one of the most highly individual and mercurial of filmographies, consistent only in its high quality, its often exquisite compositions and its tendency, at every turn, to surprise.
Notable Documentaries: Varda’s first doc, the short “Du côté de la côte,” is again a terrific example of just what a cinematic savant the director seems to have been from the beginning—ostensibly simply a travelogue about the south of France, it’s elevated by Varda’s gorgeous, vibrant photography and by the brittle and often sarcastic voiceover narration, by a man and a woman. She also made docs on subjects as diverse as the Black Panthers, the widows on a remote island (this after she herself was widowed following the death of her husband, Jacques Demy), and Cuba in the early ’60s. But it is her later feature documentaries, like “The Gleaners and I” about the subculture of impoverished ‘gleaners’ who scour harvested fields for what scraps may remain, “Cinevardaphoto” which is a trilogy of films about photography, and the kind of irresistible “The Beaches of Agnes,” which is a playful autobiography of sorts, that are arguably her most noteworthy.
Notable Fiction Films: ”La Pointe Courte” is a stunning debut, and 1985’s ”Vagabond” is a sombre feminist touchstone, but Varda’s greatest legacy is “Cleo From 5 to 7,” the real-time story of 90 minutes in a young singer’s life as she awaits the results of a biopsy. It has taken a while for ‘Cleo’ to earn its deserved place as one of the finest of the New Wave films, but Varda’s (ongoing) reassessment in recent years has meant it’s gradually finding the wider audience it deserves.
Which Form Suits Her Better? More than elsewhere on this list, the dichotomy feels like a false one, as with her very first film, Varda showed a sensibility, which would continue throughout her career, that combined documentary and fiction formats in a way that didn’t just root her fictions in reality, but also lent a heightened, avant-garde aspect to her documentaries. However as a shorthand it appears that, rather like Herzog’s trajectory, Varda has worked more in the documentary arena in the last decade or so, often placing herself at the center of the films with terrifically mischievous results. So while the drama ‘Cleo’ will remain the keystone of her career, we have to say that we enjoy her documentaries immensely, in which she often lets loose a puckish sense of humor that is largely absent from her more serious-minded fictions.
This is a short, clearly non-definitive selection of ten filmmakers who work in both formats, but there are many others we can mention: Martin Scorsese has something of a parallel career as a music and film documentarian, and esteemed French director Louis Malle made some wonderful contributions to the documentary world, especially those set in India. Speaking of India, Mira Nair, pre-“Salaam Bombay,” directed several eye-opening TV documentaries on different aspects of Indian society, the Dardennes brothers honed their realist eye for two decades in documentary before starting on narrative films, while Michelangelo Antonioni (you can check our recent Essentials piece on him here) was another filmmaker who clearly found a certain realism in documentary that he then took with him to fiction filmmaking.
We did loosely rule out (for now) those filmmakers who only have one film in either or both formats, so for example Bennett Miller, Todd Phillips, and Sarah Polley all only have one doc (“The Cruise,” rock doc “Hated: GG Alin and The Murder Brothers” and the great “Stories We Tell,” respectively), where Clio Barnard and Andrew Jarecki have just one of each (hybrid “The Arbor” and the terrific “Capturing the Friedmans” being the docs). Steven Soderbergh worked mostly with Spalding Gray in documentary format, “Spellbound” ‘s Jeffrey Blitz has one feature but now works mainly in TV, Derek Cianfrance has some music documentary TV credits too … there really are too many to list, but please feel free to shout out any examples you’d like to read more about. It’s a subject we’re keenly interested in, and with one of our very favorite documentarians (and kinda favorite humans, really) Errol Morris returning to narrative filmmaking after the largely forgotten “Dark Wind” with the Naomi Watts-starring “Holland Michigan,” we’ll hopefully have an excuse to revisit the topic soon.– Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton