Outside the Box: Several Sundance Projects Blur the Line Between Fact and Fiction
by Anthony Kaufman
"What do I call it?" asks Jonathan Caouette, the director of "Tarnation." "I call it a sheer exorcism, a form of therapy, and an experimental musical docu-drama hybrid." For his debut film, the New York-based Caouette edited 20 years of footage from his own life, injected a few staged reenactments, and jiggered it around on his desktop computer to form an eye-popping autobiographical portrait -- all for the price of $218.32.
"Tarnation" is just one of a handful of Sundance entries that don't fit into a clearly defined box. Is it a documentary? A dramatic film? (After some discussion among the programmers, it eventually landed in the Frontier section, which is devoted to more experimental work.) But this wave of hybridization is not restricted to offbeat or fringe fare, but is all-inclusive, ranging from big premieres ("The Motorcycle Diaries") to foreign cinema ("15," "The Big Durian") to faux documentaries ("CSA: The Confederate States of America") to dramatic debuts ("Down to the Bone").
"There's a generation that no longer has any qualms about using the conventions of a media in any way that they want," says Sundance Director Geoffrey Gilmore. "There is a lot of use of documentary conventions in works of fiction film and a lot of dramatic conventions in documentary work. There's now a kind of iconoclasm that's breaking down what those models were."
If Caouette's film is an artful form of reality-TV crossed with Andy Warhol and digitally manipulated for the new millennium, Christian Johnston's "September Tapes" is a "Blair Witch" for the post-9-11 era. Johnston prefers the term "reality fiction" for this story of a journalist's journey to Afghanistan and his subsequent disappearance. "I wanted that war correspondent feel," says the director.
The film also evolved as they went along, incorporating Northern Alliance fighters, everyday Afghanis, violent skirmishes, and revelations about the U.S.'s failure to capture Osama bin Laden into the fiction of the film. "It became about authenticity," he says. "Like 'The Battle of Algiers,' there's this possibility of the run-and-gun shoot; it doesn't put you in a closet and you can capture life on the streets."
Authenticity was also key for a pair of filmmakers in the dramatic competition. Though Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone" and Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace" look and feel like fiction films, they evolved out of a rigorous tradition of documentary-style research. "The experiences that are depicted in 'Down to the Bone' are subject matter and experiences that are not my own," says Granik, "so all the ideas of the film came from working and observing a family in upstate New York."
Based on hours of interviews with the film's real "life models" (when compiled, the interviews were the size of a phonebook, Granik says), the filmmaker immersed herself into the story of one mother's battle with drug addiction. Inspired by Italian and British Neorealism, early Russian cinema and French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Granik calls her work somewhat akin to "visual anthropology," focusing on "the idiosyncrasies of real characters," she says. "I try to pepper the film with their specific details and specific physicality."
Marston (who attended NYU at the same time with Granik) traveled all the way to Ecuador to prepare for his feature debut "Maria Full of Grace," the story of a 17-year-old Columbian girl who traffics drugs to the United States. "All directors do a certain amount of research, but there was a real commitment to a level of authenticity in the writing and making of the film that required a certain level of investigation and a very detailed and rigorous series of conversations," says Marston.
"When I started researching this, it was always about hearing people's stories," he continues. "In the same way that documentaries are important, I think if fiction films can help people look outward more and understand other points of view, then I think they are fulfilling some beneficial function in furthering human understanding."
For "CSA: The Confederate States of America," a wily look at American history, which imagines the South having won the Civil War, filmmaker Kevin Willmott took an opposite approach to arrive at human understanding. By making a fully realized documentary on fake events, he says, "It was a way of trying to make slavery real for people. There is no footage of slavery. African Americans don't have that kind of documentation, so it was critical to make it within a documentary framework, so you couldn't escape the truth."
While Willmott blurred documentary and fiction elements to drive a political point, "Tarnation" director Jonathan Caouette feels the boundary-breaking genre is a natural reflection of our times. "It's 2004," he says, "and I think we're ready for some really crazy stuff now."