Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Is “Bruno” a Documentary?

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When is a doc a doc, and when is it not? If a film portrays real people in real situations without a script, then it’s a doc, right? But what if the film is about a fictional character interacting with real people in a real situation? These questions have been knocked around for a while now, and reached a fever pitch when actor Sacha Baron Cohen took on the role of Borat to made a quasi-documentary about interacting with real people in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in 2006. (The blurred lines resulted in a series of lawsuits against Cohen and distributor Fox by some of the “real” people in the film who said they were misled or misrepresented. As far as I know, none of the suits held up in court.)

Sacha Baron Cohen as BrunoThe questions are rising again, with Cohen’s latest film, Bruno, slated for July. The trailer for Bruno (not safe for work, incidentally) was recently released, and it features text stating that the film includes “real people” and “real situations.” It’s funny that the makers of the trailer felt the need to tell the audience that what they see was “real” — to me, this message almost serves to counteract that idea. It’s sort of like how the word “natural,” when applied to a loaf of bread, means absolutely nothing these days.

Bringing “real people” and a “fictional character” together in one film can remind us that life that can’t be categorized in neat, orderly boxes. When is a doc a doc? Or perhaps the better question is: When is a nonfiction film a nonfiction film? I think it’s like that quote about pornography: I know it when I see it. I have no problem saying that Errol Morris, despite all his recreations and paying subjects and whatnot, is a nonfiction filmmaker.

And I’d say the same goes for Baron Cohen, albeit on a lower-brow level. What makes it harder to call his films nonfiction, or documentaries, is the fact that they are so clearly intended to entertain, rather than enlighten — which is the more commonly-accepted purpose of the documentary.

So, then, where do the latest rumors about actor Casey Affleck‘s documentary fit into all this? Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent antics of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who claimed that he’s quitting acting and starting up a career as a rapper. Phoenix made a fool of himself falling off a stage, and showed up catatonic on the David Letterman show. Affleck, who is Phoenix’s brother-in-law, has been trailing him throughout all this with a camera. Are they making a documentary about celebrity? About Phoenix’s worldview? Or are they just punking the media and those who soak it all in, all for the sake of a nonfiction film? That would then make us the unwitting “real” participants in their script.

I don’t know, but it sounds like that could be both entertaining and enlightening.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Matt

    FOREIGNID: 18243
    Would we call Candid Camera, Howie Do It or the Jamie Kennedy Experience a documentary or nonfiction television series? My guess is most people (myself included), especially those in the documentary community, would say hell no and there you have your answer. Where does this leave filmmakers like Michael Moore, who stage or ‘massage’ incidents like the opening scene of Bowling for Columbine? I’m not sure where the line gets drawn there, though the Academy certainly sees it as okay. Perhaps it becomes a question of intent?

  • Andrew

    FOREIGNID: 18244
    But couldn’t this be extended to anyone who leads a subject with questions? Whether they believe it’s their right as the filmmaker, or they’re using an amped up on-camera persona, or they’re adopting a flat out comic alter-ego…
    the phrase about Michael Moore massaging an incident for his film is the worst/best thing I have ever heard in a documentary versus narrative discussion.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 18245
    That’s the thing: it’s sort of disturbing, but fiction and non-fiction are really on a spectrum. You go too far to one side, and it becomes one or the other. But somewhere in the middle, and it’s very complicated to call it one thing or another. I have spoken with many doc filmmakers who constantly tweak reality through editing or leading their subjects. I think the whole notion of a true cinema verite was thrown out a while ago. Look at Grey Gardens: even the Maysles brothers show themselves in the mirror in what I’d call a footnote to the viewer that what you see is something being mediated by two guys and a camera.