Thursday, July 31, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments (9)

Fiction, Facts, Film

posted by Tim Wright

How do documentary media differ from narrative media? STOP RIGHT THERE, my wife says. You are supposed to be blogging, not writing an essay, and a stiff, academic, atherosclerotic one at that. But, I whine, The Public Humanist is not really about blogging, which needs to be a daily mind dump. Were just academic essayists trying to catch a ride on the fashion du jour. She is unrelenting. If you want anyone but academics to read it, youd better be more real. Besides, she adds grimly, if youre going to write like a professor, you could at least get paid like one. Ouch.

OK, OK, re-boot.

Why do I make documentaries instead of narrative films? (First of all, I hardly make either. Since winning the New England Film Festival in the late 1990s, I have only finished one additional full length documentary, and have three in progress, one of which is a music video, a first try at fiction filmmaking.) Basically, I work at the pace of a glacier, but without its power. Still, that gives me all the more time to pontificate on the subject.

Some of my students say they want to make documentaries because they are truer than fiction films. Im sorry, mes enfants: TRUTH is something we make up to console ourselves for being specks of dust on a rotating rock. To claim that a documentary against capital punishment like Steve James and Peter Gilberts 2008 At The Death House Door presents a truer picture of the reality of capital punishment than a fictional film like Tim Robbins 1995 Dead Man Walking is simply nonsense. All filmmaking is artifice, all films manipulate sounds and images in accordance with the prejudices of their makers, and insofar, documentary and fictional filmmaking are equally subjective.

Furthermore, the categories are themselves slippery. As the Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev once observed, Over time, every fiction film becomes documentary, and every documentary fictional. When we look at an I love Lucy episode in 2008, were looking at a documentary about how Americans dressed and talked in the early 1960s, what their houses looked like, what they found funny, etc.

But the reverse is also true, in a more subtle way. Have you ever seen the famous documentary The River, directed by Pare Lorentz, photographed by Willard Van Dyke and scored by Virgil Thompson in 1938? That film originated as a progressive effort by the Roosevelt administration to persuade Americans of the virtues of flood control and rural electrification by way of the creation of a series of dams which would come to comprise the Tennessee Valley Authority. But by the 1990s, the TVA had become the biggest source of pollution in the Eastern United States, mocking the message which in the 1930s had seemed so progressive. When we see the film now, its not the truth of the material, but the poetry of the presentation which moves us: the elaborate montage of water sources, the incantatory narrative enumerations of place names, Thompsons brilliant score, all elements which are staples in fiction films.

OK, you may say, but youre just nibbling at the edges of the difference. Heres the biggie: fiction films have scripts and actors; documentaries dont. But hang on.

Isnt someone being interviewed by a filmmaker acting, in some sense, since they are conscious of potentially playing a role in someones movie? Some documentary makers have attempted to suppress this acting by not allowing interviews. In American style cinema verite, for instance, interviews are a no no. The filmmaker is a fly on the wall, documenting things that would be happening regardless of the filmmakers presence. Of course, except in the case of hidden cameras, the subject is still well aware of being filmed and hence potentially modifying their actions for the camera.

In the case of scripting, too, the difference between documentary and fiction films is not always so clear. Take a typical TV news documentary. There is a script which is written in house before the camera crew goes out, and the director just interviews people until he or she gets the response that is already in the script. It is simply too expensive to work otherwise, which explains why so much TV news is so boring. A news sequence on abortion will feature two or three rabidly anti-abortion views and an equal number of pro-abortion ones. (What you almost never see in TV news stories is people actually thinking on camera, forming an opinion as they speak. Bill McKibben, in his book The Age of Missing Information, tells of recording all 100 plus cable channels from a suburban Virginia franchise, then spending the next year analyzing what he saw. He was particularly struck by the Nature documentaries. In them, he observed, Nature consists of a series of slam dunks. Everything is birth, copulation and death. Never a dull moment, though in twenty-five years of walking and camping in the wilderness, he had never seen an actual instance of any of those things. Are these docs the truth about nature?)

But I digress. Lets exclude from our consideration that kind of documentary altogether, and exclude the more formulaic fiction films as well. To me, the biggest difference between docs and fiction films is not so much in the product as in the sensibilities of the folks who make them.

The difference is this: control. Fiction filmmakers play God. They attempt to transfer a fully formed vision which exists in their head onto the screen. They have as close to total control as one may have without actually being God. They write or cause to be written the exact words that are spoken in the film. They make marks indicating exactly where actions in the film begin and end. They hire professional actors to speak those words and perform those actions. If they dont do them to the directors satisfaction, they do them over and over again until he or she says stop.

Documentary makers, alas, are failed gods. Not because they lack vision, but because they cannot fully control the material from which their films are built. That material, after all, consists of the flow of actuality which is going on without reference to the wishes of the filmmaker. Fiction filmmakers create a world, while documentary filmmakers have to wrestle with a world which already exists.

This is one reason why it is relatively rare for fiction filmmakers to do documentaries, and vice-versa. The temperaments required are very different. The best fiction filmmakers tend to be control freaks, whereas many of the best documentarians are looser, more indirect, counter-punchers, improvisers.

And more modest -- or less secure, take your pick. Me, I would be embarrassed to be given the resources to make a fiction film. Then, I would have to take complete responsibility for the world I created, a frightening prospect. As a documentarian, I can always shrug and say: I did my best, but the world went in another direction&

But heres the deeper story: most documentary makers dont want to be in control. We are explorers rather than nation builders, and that is what makes our work thrilling, at least to ourselves. For us, the script lies at the end of the journey, not the beginning.

To be concrete: when I began my documentary on the recycling of the Bostons ancient elevated subway in the late 1980s, I was primarily driven by a fascination with demolition which went back to my childhood, when I used to build model airplanes only to blow them up in mid-air by sticking fire crackers up their tail pipes.

But when I started interviewing older by-standers along the demolition route, they were sad it was going. They didnt share my esthetic fascination with destruction. I discovered that they associated the by then rusted old structure with the excitement of their youth, when they would take the subway for the first time downtown where they could re-invent themselves outside the pull of family. Now that it was coming down, it reminded them of their own mortality, reminded them that they were going to be coming down as well. Because I was an older guy too, who was re-inventing himself as a filmmaker, this resonated with me and became one of the dominant themes of the documentary.

This is a typical of documentary. Your vision collides with the implacable march of actuality and the subjectivities of all the other observers and makers of that actuality. At the end of the process, what you have is neither you nor the world, but something new, evident only at the end of the process, when the fragments have been re-assembled, the jigsaw puzzle completed, though always with some pieces still missing. This is why editing is the central creative act of documentary filmmaking, whereas it is only a craft in the process of fiction filmmaking, where the script remains sovereign. Ultimately, in fiction films, meaning is revealed. In documentaries, meaning is discovered.

Is one form superior to the other? Its funny. If someone put a gun to my head and made me list the ten films which have most moved me, most all of them would be fiction films. But if you asked me which films I would rather have made, all of them would be documentaries. Why? Because if it is a serious documentary, you are not the same person at the end of it as you were at the beginning. What more could you possibly ask of work?

[So I show this revision to my wife. She gives me a thin smile: Congratulations, dude. Nice little essog.]

Comments (9)
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What a great reflection of the documentary creative process! As someone whose own documentary took 12 years to create, fund, and get out into the world, I couldn't agree more that documentary filmmaking is about the journey, not the destination - and even if the film isn't autobiographical, it is as much about the filmmaker's personal story. The process of telling the story that you ultimately tell from the hours (and years) of footage and time spent absolutely shapes who you are and who you become. And as you say, Tim, 'What more can you possibly ask of work?'
Posted by Cindy McKeown on 7.31.08 at 9:54
thanks for this discussion, Tim. Two comments: 1)what you describe here is what I experience when I do academic or more personal research - that it is always a process of discovery. You start out with a hypothesis but what you find along the way is often quite different and that's the real excitement of it. I imagine this might be true of scientific research as well. 2)From what I have heard fiction writers describe (I don't know about fiction filmmakers), writing a novel or a poem is also a process of discovery - that the characters or the words or images inhabit you and lead you places you hadn't anticipated, and you follow that as much as you direct it. Anyway, thanks for sharing, bro!
Posted by Elizabeth on 7.31.08 at 10:21
Tim, thank you for such an insightful essay. You write that "Fiction filmmakers create a world, while documentary filmmakers have to wrestle with a world which already exists [...] it is relatively rare for fiction filmmakers to do documentaries, and vice-versa. The temperaments required are very different. The best fiction filmmakers tend to be control freaks, whereas many of the best documentarians are looser, more indirect, counter-punchers, improvisers." This is partly why I think Werner Herzog is such an amazing filmmaker, who I would count among the best living masters today. I heard an interesting interview a few years ago on Weekend Edition in which Herzog was talking about "Grizzly Man," a documentary film that tell the story of Timothy Treadwell who lived among bears and along with his girlfriend was killed and eaten by bears. Herzog weaves Treadwell's own video footage into the film. In the interview Herzog said of the documentary/fiction distinction, "I don't really make a clear distinction between documentaries and feature films, there's a blurred line because I stylize documentaries, sometimes I even invent [...] sometimes I try to dig into something much deeper than the superficial truth of the so called cinema verite, somehow [it is] confused about fact and truth, and I've always looked for something much deeper, an ecstatic truth, the ectascy of truth [...] the distinction is not so clear."
Posted by David Tames on 7.31.08 at 11:26
when you have the choice, why would anyone find content documenting this miserable world. when the utopia in my head is so much better. "The difference is this: control. Fiction filmmakers play God." playing God is more fun Mr. Wright. I am sure your grandfather would have agreed. Dariusz
Posted by Dariusz on 7.31.08 at 13:31
Goddard was famously quoted as saying "film is truth at 24 frames a second," which was fatuous at the time and inaccurate now. Most video runs at 30 frames a second or, to be more accurate, 29.97, but who's counting. Film has never been truth, whether documentary or fiction, just another way to tell a story. In general I agree that the temperament of documentarians and fiction filmmakers is different, but the line is blending more and more in history films that require re-enactments. These re-enactments, when done well, enhance the film, although they are stand ins for the missing archives, which themselves are often suspect. As for my temperament, I loved producing a feature and I really enjoy directing re-enactments. Especially if the re-enactments can be done while the editing is in progress, allowing me to match the scene to the words we're working with from narration or talking heads. That synergy makes the film come alive, and although it's not truth, it is entertainment. Without that factor who's going to bother to watch anyway. Great blog entry, by the way. I loved the references to The River and I Love Lucy. I always think of them together.
Posted by Larry Hott on 8.1.08 at 10:19
I am really excited by art-makers blurring the lines between fiction and documentary subjects these days (Chris Kraus author of "I Love Dick" is an example in the performance art/literary field or Nature Theater of Oklahoma's production of "No Dice" in the theater field). I think these blurrings really get at the manipulative (non-objective nature of art in general and also its albility to show "truth" (I would define this in this context as elements that ring true and thus are revelatory for viewers/experiencers.) regardless of fact. I really like your mention of the way the genres can be reversed too (docs into fiction, fiction into docs of . . . something). Someone said something that really inspired me in the way of thinking about art (she is a blurrer). She completely rejected the notion of playing god as something to seek after as an artist, but defined her interest in art as herself confronting material. Whatever material. Though the work she makes is fictional (though involving many seemingly insignificant pieces of biographical material), this falls into the category more of the exploration and finding, rather than commanding, planning or creating. Also, I am interested to think about the way that the invention of photography and film (the only two possible documentary media that exist?) and their appearance as truth in a way that other arts had maybe not changed art and maybe helped along this process-centered way of creating/looking at things. Great blog, Tim. My favorite part was the firecrackers on the airplanes. What a way of playing god!
Posted by Casey on 8.3.08 at 21:38
When teaching students to consider the differences between fiction (narrative) film, and nonfiction (documentary) film, I usually use a single example... FICTION: Q: How many angles are needed to cover a one-word dialogue scene between Mary and Spot, her dog? A: At the least, 5: WS, 2CU, 2OSS (And with CGI maybe more?) NONFICTION: If it was a doc, the DP would simply start filming, catching the angles as they happen. CONCLUSION: Unless you are prepared to do 5 angles for EVERY scene, (won't your editor be glad of all that coverage, and your financiers not) , or CHOOSE which of those 5 to shoot for every scene, I'd do a doc. And I haven't even mentioned who came up with the brilliant dialogue for the scene.
Posted by GLG on 8.4.08 at 11:33
An interesting hypothesis. I am not sure I can share it, because I, like Elizabeth, believe that even fictional characters get out of control, if we are to believe what novelists say. I tend to think that the choice between documentary or fiction has more to do with one's attitude towards "real" people. But that could just be a projection of my own experience: when I "documented" the decline of an industrial district in former East Berlin, it would have panicked me to interview the people! What I share completely is your blurring the difference between the two genres. After all, the students' assesmbly documented by Marcel Ophüls in 68 is no more true than Anonioni's fictional one in Zabriskie Point.. And then there is "docufiction" and there is Michael Winterbottom...Though it's going to be my comment a bit long, I'd like to quote Ophüls in an interview with Gerald Peary: Q.:Someone like Godard might attack The Sorrow and the Pity by labelling it a "Hollywood film." How would you react to such a label? A- I don't know what Godard thinks of the film. I don't know if he dislikes it as much as I dislike his films. If someone called The Sorrow and the Pity a Hollywood film, would I be feel insulted? No, I think there's a great deal of truth to that statement. This movie is a Fifth Column documentary, made by someone telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end by use of sex, music, cutting, and manipulation, in a field where most of these things are considered by puritans as wrong to do. It's the puritan who passes on the fiction that if you use real people and take a camera into the street, you are closer to the truth than if you used Spencer Tracy. I don't believe that. I'm getting unhappy with the word "documentary," and I don't go out and see other documentary films. This is one of the embarrassments that comes out in these discussions. When I go to a movie, I usually see a movie.( Angiola Bonanni
Posted by angiola bonanni on 8.15.08 at 12:07
I think Elizabeth, Casey and Angiola all make telling points against my "narrative filmmakers play god" hypothesis. My own lack of experience with fiction filmmaking likely makes me naive on the subject. And in fact, I find my own approach to the music video I am now working on displays much the same loose, improvisational style of my documentary work despite using actors, having a script, and being, at least theoretically, in control. But there remain interesting differences, particularly evident in the area of re-shoots. I may not know exactly what I am doing when I shoot a scene, but I damn sure know what I want after I cut it, and having the actors come back to re-do it is something I would never, ever do as a documentarian, no matter how unhappy I was with the result. Doing so however, I should add, has failed to make me feel god-like, only stupid.....
Posted by Tim Wright on 8.19.08 at 4:34
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