Some of the most interesting and inventive fictional filmmaking today is occurring within the realm of documentary. In recent years, a wave of works by filmmakers like Joshua Oppenheimer and Sarah Polley have awed festival audiences and critics by combining cinematic languages and blurring forms — making fictional sequences within the boundaries of factual film and outside the conventions of narrative cinema. Documentary has never been further from the journalistic sphere.
It has also never been further from straight nonfiction. The documentary films in this year’s Locarno Film Festival showed a genre in fast evolution, but hybrid docs are increasingly in a grey zone of their own. Jiongjiong Qiu’s “Chi (Mr Zhang Believes)” (China) and José Luis Guerin’s “Academy of the Muses”” (Spain/Italy) point to the future challenges and possibilities for hybrid documentary filmmaking, but in doing so, they also exclude themselves from many of the criteria for both nonfiction and narrative awards.
“Chi” is the filmic equivalent of a nonfiction novel, the hybrid literary form forged by Truman Capote. Colliding theatrical fiction and autobiography, it is shot largely in black and white, with small moments of color, traditional Chinese music and liberal use of a smoke machine, noir-ishly evoking a murky time of falsehoods and distrust.
“Chi” revises political history though the personal history of the elderly Zhang Xianchi, who has clearly experienced many crucial moments of 20th Century China. Through Zhang’s recollections, we begin in 1945 when China battled with Japan, then move into the 1946 civil war between Communists and nationalists. These events motivated Zhang to enlist as a special agent at age 16 using fake documents. By the time his father’s name is added to a death list by the Communist Party, Zhang’s indoctrination leaves him unmoved: “I feel nothing.” After many years and Kafka-eqsue turns, Zhang is arbitrarily denounced as a “Rightist” and an enemy of the Party in 1957, a label that comes with a likely sentence of 23 years of “re-education” in a labor camp.
Though these condemnations were imparted as swiftly and easily as one might swat a fly, the repercussions last to the present day. Zhang’s Rightist label wasn’t “rectified” until 1980. By then, he’d “become a Rightist through and through,” an ironic product of a mad political system. The film’s theme becomes not just the micro illumination of macro politics, but the paradoxes of authoritarianism, how dictatorial systems sow the seeds of opposition and downfall by forcing people into positions and beliefs they would never otherwise assume. Needless to say, the story is extraordinary. If the details are somewhat lost over the course of two and a quarter hours, the atmospherics are powerful: “Chi” brings to life a time of fear, adventure and organized political insanity.
Talking-head documentaries often sporadically break up their interviews with interludes of reenactments to render the most dramatic plot points more vivid. “Chi” reverses that, so that the reenactments carry the main narrative thread. They are staged in amazingly elaborate and stylized sets, which we move through as the camera follows the characters. Despite the theatrical mise-en-scène, “Chi” retains a cinematic edge.
Its strength and its weakness is that its particular version of the hybrid form is an emotive one more suited to creating a mood than communicating the hard facts of history. Given the continued presence of fiction in the history books, hybrid forms are the perfect vessels to reveal the personal stories obscured by the official version of events. Watching “Chi,” I was reminded of critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s comments on the themes underlying the work of Oliver Stone. They apply just as much to what is happening in the hybrid genre today:
“There is history and there is ideology, and the actual history of things — the facts — are usually not in dispute,” Seitz said. “You know certain things happened at certain points. But there’s always this ideology that surrounds it, and the ideology is the lie that’s told to the public to justify the people who are profiting from whatever happens…. [C]ommunism vs. capitalism, east vs. west, all of these conflicts that have animated history are a cover story and conspiracy. [T]he purpose of them is to obscure the machinations of power and money.”
In this way, hybrid forms are the perfect medium with which to mediate on the muddy themes of country and myth-making. Beyond the big-time political impacts, the storytelling is personal: “Chi” cuts through the official narrative of Chinese history to show how authoritarianism has small but significant impacts on ordinary but important lives. Families were dispersed and lovers turned to ghosts.
The problem is that this species is evolving faster than the film industry’s conventional understandings of what documentary is. It is a major issue that many awards and competitions for documentaries are finding it harder recognize documentaries that access the full spectrum of cinema’s aesthetics and that experiment in a hybrid space. This is a great shame: As in all art, the most exciting work is made in the grayest of spaces.
Just defining a film’s genre is edging toward the impossible: at Locarno Film Festival this year, there were feature films that felt like documentaries (“Paradise,” shot illicitly in Iran), films that were partly scripted and partly improvised doco with actors playing themselves (“Olmo and the Seagull, “a Danish, French, Brazilian, Portugese co-production), and narrative features that incorporated documentary elements (“The Sky Trembles…,” a British art film set in Morocco that felt closer to something you’d watch in a gallery).
Guerin’s “Academy of the Muses” smudges the boundaries even more. It follows Italian professor Raffaele Pinto engaging in vivid discussions of love, beauty and truth with his class. The conversations move from the theoretical — Dante, Apollo and Orpheus — to the personal, as Pinto begins to use his position to seduce his adoring female students. Watching the film is like drinking too much coffee with your smartest, most sparkling friends, going beyond your pre-formed ideas and reaching new conclusions together through animated debate.
Like “Chi,” “Academy” works because its form perfectly expresses its themes. Director José Luis Guerin shoots his subjects through the glass of café and car windows, so that their faces are filtered through the reflections of bikes, trucks, people, trees and other signs of life in the world around them. The film becomes about their faces in thought and about intellect as it flickers in their eyes and micro-expressions. Guerin depicts a totally different vision of beauty: a brainy beauty expressed in ideas and words and thoughts rather than physical actions.
Starting with a scene from a real-life classroom discussion, “Academy” appears as a documentary. But it is in fact largely scripted from thereon in. The professor is real, as his wife (who annihilates him, intellectually and to great comic effect), as are his students. It is intentionally shot like a documentary, but almost breaches the zone of a rom-com or melodrama, hence its placement in Locarno’s Signs of Life program, dedicated to frontier regions of experimentation.
Both “Chi” and “Academy of the Muses” show a passage of cinema in proliferation and transformation, brimming with formal possibility. Neither fit into any pre-existing notion of cinema. The hybrid sub-genre could move in a million future directions. Indeed, the barrier between fiction and non-fiction is already blurring at a faster pace than we can redefine.