RETHINKING THE PLACE OF DOCUMENTARY FILMS AND WONDERING ABOUT ACTING

I wrote my last post about a documentary film and I was not really thinking of continuing with the same topic but I came across a very interesting article by Carlos Lara, “¿Debería poder ganar un documental el Goya a Mejor Película?” (“Should a documentary film win the Goya to Best Film?”) so, here I go again. Lara is asking the question in relation to this year’s Goya winner for best documentary, El año del descubrimiento by Luis López Carrasco and to one of the nominees, My Mexican Bretzel by Nuria Giménez Lorang. In Lara’s view, these two films are much better (meaning far more daring) than those in the fiction film category, the winner Las niñas, and the nominees, Adú, Ane, Sentimental and La boda de Rosa. I cannot offer an informed opinion as I have only seen Iciar Bollaín’s La boda de Rosa, which I absolutely loved. I can say, however, that I have found myself not only watching more and more documentary films in the last year but also finding them far more satisfactory than fiction films. Incidentally, I must note that the Romanian documentary Collective is making history at this year’s Oscars, after being nominated in the best documentary and the best international feature film categories. I must also note that whereas 24 women have won Oscars for feature-length documentary films (Barbara Kopple has won twice) only 1 woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won an Oscar for best director. I would say, then, that it is also in women’s interests to make documentary films more prominent and visible.

What Carlos Lara is implicitly asking is why documentary films are less valued than fiction films. Please, note that the label ‘fiction film’ is only used when it is necessary to contrast what we usually just call ‘films’ with documentary films. That is, then, one of the problems: any film which carries an adjective in its label (documentary film, animated film, short film) appears to be in a separate category from the generic category ‘film’, which in fact corresponds specifically to the feature-length live-action fiction film. The supposition, I assume, is that the fiction film is better valued because it is supposedly harder to tell a story from scratch, through scenes performed by actors, than creating a film using animation, or involving scenes from real life, or told in less than 90 minutes. As you can see, the moment this is made explicit, it sounds quite absurd. Only prejudiced convention determines that the feature-length live-action fiction film is accepted as the main category for films. There is, in fact, no specific reason why the other kinds of films are undervalued, except a poor understanding of the effort it takes to make them and of their aesthetics.

Having mentioned the word ‘aesthetics’ I will now ask the question of whether this is all we take into consideration when choosing to watch a fiction film or a documentary. Believe me when I say that trying to define the fiction film and the documentary film for what they do is much harder than it seems, and perhaps aesthetics is the answer to what separates one from the other. Let me take an example on which I have written: the documentary by Rob Epstein, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Oscar Award winner) and the fiction film Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant). This was the winner of an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, which went to Sean Penn, and of an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, awarded to Dustin Lance Black. Here the problems begin, for although Milk is not based on a previous work, the connections between Black’s ‘original’ screenplay and Epstein’s documentary are more than obvious. Van Sant, besides, uses original footage also used by Epstein, recreating some of the scenes with his actors.

Anyway, my point is that both films tell in a very talented way the same story: how Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for office (he was a member of San Francisco’s Town Council) was murdered in cold blood, by his fellow councillor Dan White, who also killed the mayor, George Moscone. Now ask yourself how you would like to know about this tragic event: through the documentary or through the fiction film? Just trust me when I say that both tell the story proficiently and in a moving, entertaining way. Advantages of the documentary? It is, obviously, far more informative and has plenty of footage of the real Harvey Milk, and other persons of his circle. Advantages of the fiction film? It recreates far more personal aspects of Milk’s private life into which the documentary does not go, and the acting is very good. I would say that both films are excellent and, in combination, a superb cinematic experience. Yet, we rarely find time for two films on the same topic. In fact, although I see the point in making a documentary once the fiction film has been made, I see little point in making the fiction film once the documentary is available, particularly if said documentary is a great film as Epstein’s is. Consider, if you want another example, why Robert Zemeckis’s fiction film The Walk (2015) exists, since James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008) tells wonderfully the story of how Frenchman Phillip Petite crossed on a wire the distance between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Is it a matter of availability? Of audiences not knowing that certain documentaries exist? Or is it, as I say, a question of aesthetics? Why do audiences prefer the fakery of fiction film to the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary?

I have written the word ‘authenticity’ in inverted comas because this is the issue that bedevils any understanding of the documentary. To put it simply, fiction films can lie as much as they want, even when they recreate real-life events, but documentary films are not supposed to lie, yet they do. In fact, it is quite possible that all boils down to a misunderstanding. Famously, the Scottish father of the documentary, John Grierson, commended in a review Moana (1926) –a film portraying the natives of the South Pacific made by the American father of the documentary Robert Flaherty– for its “documentary” value, which eventually lent this film genre its name. As happens, however, Flaherty’s film was full of staged scenes that he had invented on the basis of the local ‘traditions’ which he forced his native actors to perform; besides, Grierson wrote that Moana was perhaps more interesting for its poetic values. The idea that the documentary documents reality does not come simply from that review and that remark but it is certainly connected with it, and has made it almost impossible to define the genre with precision since not all documentaries ‘document’ reality (many re-create it) and what you may mean by ‘reality’ is also open to discussion. Take, for instance, Goya’s nominee My Mexican Bretzel. Apparently, director Nuria Giménez Lorang uses in it the home movies shot by her grandfather from the 1940s to the 1960s (footage which she found by chance), grafting onto these moving images the melodramatic story of her grandmother Vivian, a story which is, basically, invented. How is that a documentary?

Every time I try to think of some rule that fiction films and documentaries cannot break, there appears an exception perhaps because the two film languages have mixed in recent times. I had never noticed, for instance, that documentaries use music in ways very similar to fiction films, giving some scenes the tone of a thriller, or of melodrama, as the director wishes. Some scholars claim that, ultimately, the basis of the difference between a fiction film and a documentary is a matter of expectations: audiences expect to be told a story in fiction films, but to be enlightened about an aspect of reality they didn’t know in documentaries (as if they were lessons). It doesn’t work like this, either. Just think of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and how much one may learn from it about the Holocaust, even though it cannot be called at all a documentary film like, for instance, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Actually, Spielberg’s film created a big scandal by having the cameras enter the showers at Auschwitz, a moment that no other film, fictional or documentary, had dared recreate. Lanzmann was among the American director’s most vocal critics. Yet, this is just a matter connected with historical taboos, not a matter of what films –fictional or documentary– can do.

You may recall that one year ago we were all fascinated by Netflix’s documentary mini-series Tiger King (directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode). There was a hilarious moment (I can’t recall whether it was in the series or in a bonus feature) in which Joe King fantasized about being played by Brad Pitt in a film about his life. That is hilarious not only because there are many obvious physical differences between King and Pitt, but because there is already a great film about King’s life: the mini-series. In a similar vein, let me repeat a curious anecdote I just heard actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrate: Philippe Petite, the man who did walk between the Twin Towers, remember?, taught the actor, who plays him in Ron Howard’s film, how to walk on a wire. This is bizarre, not only because just fancy the real-life man teaching the actor how to do what made him famous but also because, according to director James Marsh, Petite is a big narcissist that absolutely wanted to dominate the shooting of his documentary. Why Petite would feel interested in Gordon-Levitt’s performance is something I fail to grasp. Was he flattered in some way? Why not jealous?

All in all, I am going to argue that what ultimately makes the difference between choosing to see a fiction film or a documentary film has to do with a specific element of the aesthetics of the fictional film: acting. Moana, the film by Flaherty I have mentioned, inaugurated docufiction on the sly, by including staged scenes. Without going so far, many documentaries include recreations of scenes of real life for which there is no footage, usually employing actors in a rather anonymous way, frequently cast just because they look like the real-life person they play. On the other hand, the docudrama is supposed to bridge the gap between the fiction film and the documentary by sticking as closely as possible to the ‘truth’ of events while still being presented as a fiction film. Milk is a docudrama in that sense, and The Walk. I believe, however, that very few spectators think of films based on real-life events as docudramas, since the dramatic license many take is quite generous. I don’t think any spectator is now as naïve as to think that a film wholly based on staged scenes can be trusted. This is why I am claiming that ultimately what gives the feature-length, live-action fiction film its popularity over the documentary is the audience’s preference for acting, to the point that given the choice between seeing a documentary with the real-life person and a docudrama with an actor playing that person, the latter is preferred.

What I have been discovering –or rediscovering– in the last year is that actor-dominated films (= fiction films) are not necessarily more entertaining, or more fulfilling, than narrative or argumentative films in which acting is non-existent or just used at the basic level of re-creation (= documentaries). Despite marvelling at how Tom Hanks plays classic children’s TV star Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), this fiction film cannot compare to the far better documentary film by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), also on Fred Rogers. Indeed, when Hanks and Heller saw together Neville’s film, the actor asked the director why they were making their film at all… An obvious answer is that Hanks could attract viewers to the figure of Mr. Rogers in ways the far less known documentary by Neville could not, though this is not really a merit of fiction films (or of actors) but of their distribution channels. Now that we are used to finding so many documentaries on the streaming platforms the situation might change. My guess is that, if given the same visibility as fiction films, documentary films might grow to be just as popular and valued.

Here is, by the way, a very basic bibliography for documentaries in case you’re interested:
Aitken, Ian (ed.). The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge, 2013 (2006).
Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.
Bruzzi, Stella. New documentary: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2006 (2000).
Ellis, John. Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation. Routledge, 2012.
Grant, Barry Keith and Sloniowski, Jeannette (eds.). Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Wayne State UP, 2014 (1998).
McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. Continuum, 2012.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana UP, 2017 (third edition).
Renov, Michael. The Subject of Documentary. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Enjoy! (And if you subscribe to Netflix, watch Father, Soldier, Son…).

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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