The New Hybrids: Fact and Fiction Fuse to Form Bold and Challenging "Documentaries"
by Jonny Leahan
"This is the real world, this is what it's all about. If I can be following something, if I can be on the trail of something, then I am alive." - Tahir Shah in "House of the Tiger King"
In the world of documentary film, the definition of "truth" has always been murky territory. Even a purist will admit that once the camera is turned on, and documenting reality becomes a form of artistic expression, the truth begins to fade in and out like a weak radio signal. There are those who lament that notion, criticizing anything that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, and those who embrace it, relishing the idea that a filmmaker's job is to create their own reality through their personal vision of the project.
Some enthusiastic members of the latter camp can be found running the True/False Film Festival, which takes place in Columbia, Missouri, today through Sunday. After last year's successful debut, festival organizers have stepped up their commitment to programming challenging new non-fiction films across a spectrum of categories -- from mockumentaries to animated docs, but with a special emphasis on "hybrids," which blend both documentary and narrative elements in just about any combination imaginable.
"True/False is dedicated not only to championing new and non-traditional documentaries," festival co-director David Wilson told indieWIRE, "But to providing a platform for work that re-imagines and re-defines non-fiction filmmaking. Each year we strive to program movies that play with the thin membrane between doc and narrative, as well as ones that punch right through it."
A perfect example of this is David Flamholc's "House of the Tiger King," a perplexing tale of a British explorer on a quest for gold treasure hidden in the lost city of Paititi, Peru. Shot as a documentary, Tahir Shah is so convincing as the obsessed explorer that if it weren't for a few deliberate scenes, such as Shah doing several takes of a certain line until he gets it just right, it would be impossible to tell if he was for real or not. That's where "Tiger King" successfully pushes the envelope of documentary filmmaking, because with scenes like that it essentially becomes a film about the making of a documentary whose subject is an actor playing an explorer. Got that?
If not, it's ok, because as "Tiger King" progresses it becomes less about what's true and more about the adventure itself. Flamholc actually did drag a crew through the Peruvian jungle, and even though he's weaving a fictional story around real footage and real people, a lot of what unfolds on screen is also very real. There are bloody cockfights, shrunken heads, and mummies -- not to mention all the hardships of such an expedition, like lack of food supplies, infighting, swarms of insects, and foul weather.
Another film at the True/False festival that weaves narrative into real life footage is Stephen Marshall's "This Revolution," although the method here is entirely different. An homage to Haskell Wexler's "Medium Cool," "Revolution" does not hide that it's a narrative (even featuring stars like Rosario Dawson and Amy Redford), but it is noteworthy because of its clever use of real protest footage that in some cases actually features the actors appearing as their characters.
Centered around the recent Republican National Convention protests in New York City, Marshall skillfully segues his extensive documentary experience into a narrative yarn, not only incorporating actual protest footage, but also using actors to deliver the real news surrounding those events. In one instance, Dawson was arrested for wearing a mask during the protests, and when Marshall intervened on her behalf, he was also arrested. Of course, the unexpected footage was incorporated into the final product, and the ending was rewritten to make room for reality.
Although more of a hybrid between experimental cinema and traditional narrative, Jem Cohen's "Chain" is heavily influenced by his extensive accomplishments as a documentarian in the films "Benjamin Smoke" and "Instrument." A film with only two characters who never even meet, "Chain" is hardly a traditional story, and the point is at first elusive, in the way that a great poem artfully hides its full meaning. But quickly it becomes clear that there's a third character at work here -- Corporate Urban Sprawl -- and the feeling that the human characters are nowhere and everywhere at the same time starts to sink in.
"Chain" is a gorgeous film, both visually and structurally. Cohen has the ability to find striking beauty in an abandoned strip mall at twilight, and he understands the power of simple juxtaposition. When he combines shots of empty stores and parking lots with answering machine messages from credit counselors and debt consolidators, the effect is surprisingly stirring. As the end credits roll, it becomes clear that the film was actually shot in 25 cities around the country and the world, driving home the point that corporate chains have homogenized our daily landscape to the point where a sense of place, a feeling of local character, has almost completely disappeared.
In that sense, films like "Chain" can contain as much truth as any documentary, challenging our notion of what "reality" even means in the context of film.
"For me, hybrid work blends elements of fiction and nonfiction," said Wilson, "Using the signifiers of one or the other to enrich a story that is best realized as a combination of real and unreal. There is always truth in hybrid work, but, to borrow from Werner Herzog, it is the truth of poets, not accountants."
[ For more information on this weekend's True/False Film Festival, please visit: http://www.truefalse.org. ]