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For the Year's Best Documentaries, It All Began With the Casting

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire December 13, 2013 at 9:31AM

Some of the most memorable characters in film this year were real people.
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"The Punk Singer"

A feminist punk singer who becomes mysteriously ill, a humble secretary to the world's most famous rock band, a father who learns that his daughter is not his biological child and a long-married couple of Japanese-American artists were among some of the most memorable characters in film this year – and they were all playing themselves. 

These personalities appear in "The Punk Singer," "Good Ol' Freda," "Stories We Tell" and "Cutie and the Boxer," part of a new wave of character-driven documentaries that rely on dynamic real-life "stars." Some are still in theaters, but they are also available to rent or download online (we've included links to the films where applicable).

To acknowledge the role of the subject in documentary films, for the first time this year Cinema Eye, the organization behind the annual nonfiction awards ceremony Cinema Eye Honors, compiled a list of "The Unforgettables," a new category that pays tribute to the notable faces of documentary film.

The idea for the list itself was inspired by documentary filmmaker and critic Robert Greene, who called on Cinema Eye to create an award for Best Performances in Non-Fiction Film.

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"Many of the best documentaries play with the idea of performance and with representations of reality, and helping viewers understand why this is a crucial aspect to documentary cinema can only help elevate the form," Greene wrote. 

Sarah Polley on the set of "Stories We Tell."
Sarah Polley on the set of "Stories We Tell."

Among the faces they honored were Freda Kelly, the Beatles secretary ("Good Ol' Freda"), Michael Polley ("Stories We Tell") and Ushio and Noriko Shinohara ("Cutie and the Boxer"). In all, the organization honored 17 people (and one bull orca -- Tilikum, in "Blackfish") who appeared in 15 documentaries. 

"The ways in which we use real people – beyond interviews – and the amount to which they cooperate in that process certainly changes what nonfiction films can be," said Cinema Eye Founding Director AJ Schnack.

Of course, there have always been character-driven documentaries with films like "Grey Gardens," "Grizzly Man," and more recently, "The Queen of Versailles" that brought compelling characters to the forefront. Without the complicity and collaboration of documentary subjects, these films likely wouldn't exist. But the fact that these subjects seemed almost participants in the storytelling process only made their stories more compelling.

"Over the last few years, with films like 'Man on Wire' and "Exit Through the Gift Shop,' there has been more of a focus on performance in highly constructed documentaries," said Schnack. "The way in which performance is used (in these films) is more expected now – especially compared to traditional ideas of what documentaries are."

The performance aspects in "The Act of Killing" are explicit with "star" Anwar Congo and his fellow gangsters -- responsible for genocide in Indonesia in 1965 -- reenacting their mass killings in the style of some of their favorite Hollywood films.

The Act Of Killing

Similarly, in "Stories We Tell," director Sarah Polley coaches her father Michael Polley on how to deliver his narration, which is based on his recollections of events depicted in the film. Adding to the layer of performance is the knowledge that both Polleys have worked as actors. To further blur the lines, the film relies on reconstructed mock home movie footage shot on a Super 8 camera.

The reality is viewing habits have changed what audiences expect from documentaries. Thanks to reality TV, "people are used to seeing great characters and sometimes those great characters are real people," said Schnack.

When director Morgan Neville set out to make "20 Feet from Stardom," he knew he had to focus on casting. After interviewing over 75 backup singers, Neville said the process was "essentially casting, figuring out who were the characters whose stories best represent the world that we're trying to portray."

Lisa Fischer from "20 Feet From Stardom"
RADiUS-TWC Lisa Fischer from "20 Feet From Stardom"

In many cases, an issue-driven documentary will start with a topic and then try to find the right personality to walk the audience through the subject, but in the cases of these films, the characters ultimately drive the stories.

In fact, when Zach Heinzerling, director of "Cutie and the Boxer" started filming Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, he wasn't even sure there was going to be a film.

"Sometimes you have a topic and you do a number of pre-interviews and you sort of know what the story is gong to be more or less and you find the right characters to express and explain that story," said Heinzerling. 

That was not the case with "Cutie and the Boxer." After moving to New York City at age 23, Heinzerling became friends with the couple initially through their artwork. "It was more of an organic relationship that would develop," he explained. "I would just go to their house and sometimes film and sometimes not film."

While the film was initially going to focus on their artwork, as Heinzerling got to know the couple better, it became clear that there was more to the story.

"It's less about the art and more about life and aging and marriage and love and creativity. Ultimately, it was the story that I felt was most universal and compelling, this relationship story and the drama inherent in the two of them in their every day lives," said Heinzerling.

Although reality TV operates in a different universe from these documentaries, they share the idea that observing people's lives -- as artificial and scripted as they may be in some reality TV shows -- is inherently interesting.

"Maybe documentaries are a slightly more artistic way of viewing reality TV"

"Maybe documentaries are a slightly more artistic way of viewing reality TV," said "The Punk Singer" director Sini Anderson. "We want to connect with something that we perceive to be real."

As a performer, Kathleen Hanna, the "star" of "The Punk Singer" is, in some ways, performing for the camera even as she is completely at ease and unselfconscious. "She identifies herself as a feminist performance artist," said Anderson, who added, "In a sense, we're all performing whenever we're in front of anybody."

Although Hanna's story has a definite narrative arc, the most compelling element of the film is Hanna herself. Just watching a charismatic, strong character such as Hanna "perform" on stage and off makes for riveting drama.

Or, as Heinzerling puts it: "Everybody has a story and if you go far enough and spend enough time with them, the drama is innate. When you see someone in their own voice stripped down and honest, it's refreshing and easy to connect with."

This article is related to: The Punk Singer, Stories We Tell, Cutie and the Boxer, Blackfish, I Am Breathing, The Act of Killing, Good Ol’ Freda, Cinema Eye Honors, Cinema Eye , Documentary