The ground rules were set early on in the IFP Film Week panel “Neorealist Features & Hybrid Documentaries.” There was to be no talk about “business.” We were here to talk about art — the art of cinema and how to transcend categorization.
Moderated by David Wilson, co-conspirator, True/False Film Fest, the discussion involved ways in which filmmakers can defy categorization with films that are not quite documentary and not quite traditional narrative features.
“I’ve submitted my film to various festivals and I’ve won awards in the documentary category, the narrative category and the experimental category,” said Lynne Sachs, director, “Your Day is My Night.”
The audience laughed at the notion of a film that is able to straddle all of those categories, but the filmmakers on the panel nodded because they understood the situation all too well.
As Tim Sutton, director of “Pavilion” put it, “I’m not a documentary filmmaker. I’m a narrative filmmaker. I just don’t believe in scripts.”
Sutton explained, “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as non-narrative. I wanted to create the world of these kids, not a story, not a plot….To me it was creating this landscape of constantly wondering about these kids — Is it real? Is it not? Does it matter?”
All of the projects blur the lines between fact and fiction, leaving the audience to wonder if what they’re seeing on screen really happened.
In the case of Sachs’ film, the answer is “yes” and “no.” While looking to cast a film about shift-bed houses (where people, usually immigrants, share sleeping quarters in time-shifted periods), she auditioned people who actually lived in shift-bed houses. “It all went in a circle. The people were standing in front of my camera. There was an artificiality to it because they were performing their lives, which I decided to push into a performance.”
As she might for a documentary, Sachs interviewed the subjects of her film. But rather than capturing “talking heads” as she might for a documentary, she transcribed the subject’s answers, which she said “was basically a script.” She then had people perform their own story, along with improvisation. “People performed their own story, but they could improvise as much as they wanted. It wasn’t that I had subjects. I had people in the film who were also my collaborators.”
With “12 O’Clock Boys,” director Lofty Nathan set out to make a movie about a young boy who aspires to join an illegal dirt bike gang. “I started ’12 O’Clock Boys’ passively,” said Nathan. “But by the end of it, I was into making it a more cohesive film. I don’t have a problem with steering it. Audiences want things to be entertaining and grounded.”
With “Pavillion,” Sutton said he set out to make a film about youth in general. I always approached it as a dramatic film. Working with non-actors, you have to approach the film in a certain way, which is using a documentary aesthetic.”
Of course, the filmmakers realize that some audience members might be confused by their films which refuse to define themselves.
“I really enjoy cinema that is complex and confusing and you’re not on solid ground — possibly ever — which may not be the best way to approach an American audience. But it’s important to me to always keep the audience in a question,” said Sutton.
With Damon Russell’s film “Snow on ‘tha Bluff,” it was essential to keep the audience guessing about what was real because the material involved a crack dealer and “a lot of people could get in trouble,” said Russell. “For legal reasons, we decided we could never tell people what is real and what is not.”
Russell’s goal was to “do whatever was the most authentic thing that no one would ever question was real. That’s what exciting — there’s no rules. It’s not like a narrative film where you’ve got to get coverage or a documentary where you’re just waiting around for something to happen. You just do what you want to do.”