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Establishing the Hybrid Documentary Canon

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In the Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer filmed perpetrators of mass killings in Indonesia recreating their crimes.

In the past year, three of the best documentaries I’ve seen were Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing and The Summit. And all three films have a shared trait: they’re all hybrids.

Hybrid documentaries are awesome. That’s what I, and many, have been thinking for a while now, and that’s what I said last week to director Ed Pincus, a filmmaking legend who is credited for being on the vanguard of Direct Cinema in the 1960s and kickstarting first-person filmmaking with his 1982 film, Diaries.

He wasn’t sure what I was talking about. He wanted examples. I mentioned this year’s stunning The Act of Killing, about Indonesian death squads, and Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s examination into her parentage. But I didn’t have a more complete list of examples and I felt that I came up short.

And that’s why I want to propose that we come up with the hybrid documentary canon. This is a subjective list, so I welcome your suggestions, additions, criticisms and what have you.

But, first: What’s a hybrid documentary? The most basic definition I’d use for a hybrid documentary is a film that weaves together traditional nonfiction filmmaking with traditional fiction filmmaking. That’s it. It’s the offspring of two different elements. So that means a documentary that incorporates techniques such as animation, recreation, intentionally directed sequences, characters who speak from scripts, and so on.

Some call this docufiction, but I like hybrid, because it suggests a progression. Some hybrids aren’t very good, in my opinion, like the work of Mads Brugger (The Ambassador). I think his way of creating a fiction character in a real-world situation abuses the latter and doesn’t do justice to the former. But many are great, using the best fiction filmmaking techniques, from camera angles to stylish editing.

There’s a counter argument to this sort of labeling. It’s reductive. It’s divisive. It runs contrary to what a lot of documentary filmmakers see themselves as these days — simply filmmakers. But, as I tried to address with the notion of a New Doc Vague, I think those filmmakers are being misunderstood by the public and many critics. If Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (Off-Label) or Sean Dunne (Oxyana) would have had “hybrid-documentary” slapped on their movie posters, I think they would have been better received.

I know many people would prefer to just call docs good ones or bad ones and, in the end, they may be right, but bear with me here. One of the reasons I think the hybrid term is important is because these films are such leaps from cinéma vérité or talking head, traditional docs. They try to represent not an unmediated “truth,” that we’re supposed to see in reality, but a “truthiness,” which is created through filmmaking. Truthiness, to be clear, is a good, thing, I think, maybe even a more true thing than the supposed truth of more conventional documentaries.

Recent films such as The Imposter, The Cove, Tchoupitoulas, and No all count, because they teasingly teeter on the line between fiction and nonfiction, whether because the primacy is placed on aesthetics or on their respective use of fiction to heighten their narratives. The distributor Oscilloscope tends to back a lot of these films, and the Cinema Eye Honors has its own “Heterodox” award, which features this kind of filmmaking.

Luke Moody over at the BRITDOC Foundation already took a big step toward defining the parameters of hybrid docs this summer. For his nuanced explanation of the form, I’d suggest reading his article, but I fear his approach was too cerebral. For instance, he says that, “the forms emerging are layered, offering a deconstructed point of view suspended within strategies for finding multiple truths.”

And he goes beyond my fiction-nonfiction definition by asking, “What other boundaries do they operate between? Observation and instigation, life and art, the actual and possible, translation and interpretation, presence and performance, construction and deconstruction, evidence and heresay, authorship and plagiarism, meaning and abstraction.”

Moody is spot-on, but what I want to do here is simplify, and propose something that is more user-friendly, something that can be, well, used in a distributor’s marketing plan. The idea being that audiences should be alerted to the fact that the film they are about to see is not just a straight up documentary.

Yes, many filmmakers will resist this because they want the work to speak for itself, but I think some fundamental sign posts will not only reduce confusion on the audience’s part, it will make them more engaged intellectually, and that it will help create a fan base for the form. (Does Spinal Tap! suffer from being called a mockumentary? I don’t think so.)

Of course, a traditional canon is something that should come to together after the test of time. So, maybe that’s not what this really is. It’s more of a branding. But that doesn’t sound as good. I guess I’m rebranding this by calling it a canon.

Here are seven documentaries that I’d propose putting in a hybrid documentary canon:

The Act of Killing (2013) – By asking perpetrators of mass killings in Indonesia to recreate those crimes, director Joshua Oppenheimer basically created a fictional representation of real events with the real participants of those events. Talk about a merging of fiction and nonfiction. But to do it with such painful, historically significant material makes the approach all the more stunning — because he pulls it all off.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Even after speaking with many of the principals (but not director Banksy) on this film, I still am not sure what is and is not real in this portrait of a sad-sack artist obsessed with street art. I’m certain it’s scripted and, in parts, acted, but is the story really true? That’s the beauty and fun of it.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) – Whenever I write about important documentaries, I find myself including this masterpiece from Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein. This self-conscious memoir by and about Hollywood producer Robert Evans spins a dizzy brew of memory, animated photos (now known as “The Kids Stays in the Picture” effect), and a well-written script. Alternate title: The Story He Tells.

A Man Vanishes (1967) – Proving that playing with fiction and nonfiction isn’t just a 21st century, or Western, phenomenon, this investigation into how and why a Japanese plastic salesman disappears keeps you on your toes. Director Shohei Imamura shoots it like a documentary, albeit with the clumsy sync-sound technology of the time. But as the story progresses, it feels less and less like a doc, and more like a fabrication.

Medium Cool (1969) – Not the most compelling story, but Medium Cool is one of the early attempts to place a fictional story in the real world, and roll the camera to see what happens. Director Haskell Wexler inserts a story into an anti-war protest-turned-riot during the Democratic National Convention, using a hybrid technique to get audiences to question the medium, authority, everything.

Stories We Tell (2013) – Polley’s narrative arc is immaculate and thrilling. She comes from the fiction realm and it shows. By weaving standard documentary interviews with other narrative devices you’ll have to see to appreciate, the film is indeed a story first, and a documentary second.

The Summit (2013) – The dramatization of someone’s death shouldn’t be taken lightly, but The Summit goes there with this depiction of a disastrous climb of the K2 mountain. Using recreations that are shot like the best Hollywood feature production imaginable, The Summit brings the hybrid into new territory: the action genre.

There are other films, maybe The Thin Blue Line, but definitely Close-Up and The Arbor that fit the bill. But one that need not apply, I think, is Nanook of the North; although that classic was entirely recreated, it’s too cute to call it a hybrid because the film was represented as, and played to audiences, like nothing but nonfiction documentary. It was a ruse (like Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here). It would be giving Nanook too much credit to call it a hybrid. It’s basically an early, unethical recreation of reality. There, I said it.

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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
  • ROSS

    Check out “Sick Birds Die Easy” – Hybrid – Won the Poland film Festival

    • Tom Roston

      Yes! I think it was playing at Hot Docs but I missed it. Gotta check it out

  • Asher G.

    How about ‘F for Fake’ and ‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm’?

  • Birgitte Stærmose

    This is an interesting article. I really like your attempt to brand the hybrid film. By the way this maybe should include a new term that does not sound like a car. We should try and come up with that! I very much like Robert Kohler’s term ‘a cinema-in-between’, because I do not believe that the really interesting and challenging hybrid is indeed only a documentary. It defies definition. It lies in between. That is the true challenge of this form of filmmaking. Unfortunately it is not a catchy phrase so a distributor would probably not find this very useful.

    However, looking at your list I was interested in how it is centered on American filmmaking. There has been so many interesting examples of this in Europe and a much bigger openness to and willingness to screen this form of filmmaking from the European film festivals. An exemplary and extremely interesting filmmaker of this form is the Austrian, Ulrich Seidl, – having gone from documentary into staging and lately working in an extremely fictionalized form he makes for an interesting study of the development of the hybrid. Another great hybrid filmmaker is the Portuguese Pedro Costa. Having come from fiction and moved into working with reality, staging a group of Cape Verdians in the slums of Lisbon in the monumental Fontainhas Trilogy http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1425-pedro-costa-s-fontainhas-trilogy-rooms-for-the-living-and-the-dead, he should be included in any list of groundbreaking hybrid work.

    I also wonder if maybe the fact that the American documentary scene has been so very absorbed by the question of ethics has stood in the way for this form to actually really flourish in the US. I became aware of this when I had a short ‘hybrid’ film, OUT OF LOVE, that had an extremely successful festival life all over Europe (awards at Berlinale, Rotterdam, EFA Best European Short nomination, etc), but was rejected by 14 American doc festivals until the brilliant people at True/False gave the film its first American screening almost two years after it premiered at the Berlinale. Here is an article where I talk amongst other things about this question of ethics an my position as a filmmaker in relation to the kids in the film: http://www.dfi.dk/Service/English/News-and-publications/FILM-Magazine/Artikler-fra-tidsskriftet-FILM/67/Observation-to-Construction.aspx I do wonder if the true hybrid really mainly challenges the dogma on documentary ethics. I think that we should be open to this possibilty as we examine this as a potential new breakthrough in filmmaking.

    • Tom Roston

      Thanks, you’re right, I’m hopelessly narrow minded when it comes to the US vs International docs. I’ve got a couple in there (the Brits are represented and Polley is Canadian!) but I should indeed expand my horizons. I do agree that the ethics–see Jennifer Merin’s qualms about THE ACT OF KILLING–trip us Americans up. I, too, have issues, but when handled well, I think those issues can be dealt with.

  • Mr. William Lashley

    Well, the term “Docufiction” has been around for a while, but it has created as many arguments as it has settled.

    Okay, since you started with seven. I will name seven more:

    “Grass” – the 1925 travelogue / man-against-the-elements epic / documentary made by Merian C. Cooper (who went on to make “King Kong”), Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison about the struggle for survival among Bakhtiari pastoral nomads of central Iran during their annual migration through central Iran is another example of the documentary-as-adventure genre that provided documentary filmmaking with its initial commercial success. Running just over an hour, “Grass” was a blockbuster, as was “Chang”, the film he and his cinematographer friend Ernest Schoedsack made as a follow up. It was originally presented as a silent film, but later a score was added. Like “Nanook of the North”, it continues to be examined for ethnographic detail while it is acknowledged that it was intended as entertainment and made without scholarly or academic rigour.

    “Waltz With Bashir” – Ari Folman’s animated film of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon use the artifice of animation coupled with interviews of Israeli soldiers to put the animation into a “realistic” frame – and then shatters the simulation of time, memory, perspective and cinematic technique by ending with the actual footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

    “Triumph of the Will” ~ people tend to forget that Leni Riefenstahl originally conceived of this film as a documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. It is taught as a propaganda film, but a scrupulous examination of “documentary as propaganda” or when documentary is used as propaganda cannot ignore the impact and craft of this document, or the questions it raises about the documentary form. Although Riefenstahl regretted ever making the film, she also said, “I filmed the truth as it was then. Nothing more.” See also her brilliant 1938 two-part film, “Olympia”.

    “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” – this 2009 film about the insider who broke ranks with the National Security complex and revealed the staggering extent of the official deceit employed to sell the War in Vietnam to the American public relied on extensive reenactments and animation. It ranged widely, but kept the confessional tone of the film, Ellsberg explaining himself, and the animation and reenactments allowed the audience to sit and listen to his voice for lengthy sequences without that intimate conversational tone becoming tedious.

    “The Good Woman of Bangkok” – one of a number of fine films “hand made” by the Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke (who died last June), this self described “Docufiction” tells how O’Rourke became more than a John to the Thai prostitute, Aoi. He came to really care for her in spite of that “professional” relationship, but was unable to help Aoi return from the streets of Bangkok to her home in Northern Thailand. In spite of his promise to buy a rice farm for Aoi and her family, by the end of the film Aoi has returned to whoring in Patpong, another village girl caught up in the bright lights and economic grip of the global “sex tourism” industry. O’Rourke readily admits that sharing her story while sharing her bed has questioned his own “professional” identity as a documentarian. See also O’Rourke’s brilliant “Cannibal Tours”.

    “Far From Vietnam” (“Loin du Vietnam”) – more specifically examine here the twelve minute sequence “Camera-Eye”, created by Jean Luc Godard for this 1967 anti-imperialist compilation in support of the North Vietnamese. Although the other collaborators (Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, William Klein, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda) contributed sequences that undoubtedly hewed closer to the activist agenda, Jean Luc Godard created an indexical gem stone that still refracts the revolutionary feel of his life and times. In spite of his use of archival material, location shots of Vietnamese students and soldiers, some ludicrously “staged” re-enactments, and many interwoven shots of atrocities in Vietnam cut with the streets of Paris during the General Strike, Godard keeps the main focus literally on himself: Most of the shots in this film are of the camera, the lights, and the filmmaker obscured from view, hiding behind his kit. But then, Godard claims that the task of supporting the freedom fighters “means creating a Vietnam within ourselves.” It is possibly best at documenting how the technology of film, that unblinking “camera-eye” snaring you in a mechanical gaze and staring you down, is such an intrusive form of interrogation. This crosses the line between artifact and documentary and is a key “document” itself in the examination of Godard’s considerable oeuvre.

    “Latcho Drom” – Tony Gatlif’s 1993 classic follows the strictures of documentary in it’s use of a non-professional cast, but there is such a premium put on the performances of Roma musicians in the various global settings that the music is in no way “incidental”. The entire film is shot like a feature film and although there is no dialogue or narration in the “non-narrative” construction, the set musical pieces feel at times to be as stylized and editorially constructed as the studio sections of Martin Scorcese’s rockudrama “The Last Waltz”. I don’t think these would satisfy Frederick Wiseman’s standards of objectivity in representation, or that they even attempt to question the nature of their subjective approach, or that Wiseman and many other classic documentarians would consider either of these films documentaries. I do. What do you think?

    A few comments I would like to add. The entire post-modern critique of “exteriority’, “representation”, and “hyperrealism” has called the very intention of documentary into question, but it has also opened up the text/context /subtext continuum across the discipline by taking up the “concrete” role of the archival material of film and presenting it decontextualized as repurposed imagery (and sound) in mashups, montages and the like. Consider “The Clock”, an experimental art installation first presented in 2010 by Christian Marclay that tosses out the narrative and non-narrative tradition of story telling aside and opt for a strict adherence to actual chronological time, with his 24 hour extended montage of film clips of watches and clocks, synced to real time. And, yes, it takes 24 hours to watch the entire film. The question must be asked, is this a document of “movies” or something other than “life at twenty four frames per second”? Here the art film, challenges the production method (like Italian Neorealism, or “idies” once did), the distribution methods and the popular assumptions about what a film should be. And I think that challenge should resonate most powerfully in the realm of documentary.

    • Tom Roston

      Teach on, professor! These are great, some I had never heard of. I definitely agree about Waltz with Bashir. I’ll look into the others. Thanks.

  • Ulysses Koda

    Fantomes de Tanger (1998) is a great example, especially if you’re a Paul Bowles or William Burroughs fan.

  • Dalan McNabola

    What about Snow on tha Bluff? Not sure if it would qualify as a doc, but some of the footage was real.

  • Addison

    Errol Morris started all this back in ’88 with “The Thin Blue Line.” Documentary film theorist Bill Nichols suggested this kind of documentary be termed “reflexive.” Does no one care about Bill anymore?

  • Jonah Parker

    For-profit film studios with activist agendas can use private and taxpayer sheltered NGO funds to tell good stories (or “fibs”) with the ends supposedly justifying the means. That’s bad enough — think Diane Weyermann actually saying about Errol Morris & her disastrous pic with him SOP [paraphrase] “everyone knows we pay people to appear in docs but nobody says anything about it.” (Read: our little dirty secret as sanctimonious pseudo-journalists/storytellers for stoned Millennials.)

    But when Participant Media effectively tries to downplay or at least obfuscate where the the money comes from — a $100 million revolving line of credit from Qatar — http://dohanews.co/post/43061745242/dfi-teams-up-with-american-media-group-to-create-100 — a Gulf State supporter of terrorist maneuvers and arms supplier to the region — and their exec marketing V.P.’s Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones secretly call up people in the industry to complain about those disclosures, this is Hollywood at its worst. The intelligence community wouldn’t call this type of activity “hybrid” filmmaking — it would be denoted “information operations,” i.e., psychological warfare. Target audience: documentary film festival audiences and the new cable doc channels and streaming vod for the kids.

    So much for transparency as a substitute for objectivity, and so much for Evan Shapiro and @pivot_tv claims for news literacy. Yes, the right wing, evangelical extremists probably are even worse than Participant Media and its ilk are at this — but why shouldn’t we hold the the self-righteous to the same standards? That is, the Koch brothers are just as guilty as Jim Berk and Jeff Skoll, but think back, not too long ago, about the documentary film community that once existed before it was contaminated with right wing extremist and Soros/Sundance funding? Now the game seems to be changing again, and many — but certainly not all — documentary filmmakers,who always kept themselves financialy alive by shooting television and other advertising & commercials, seem to be taking the information warfare/behavioral psych/strategic communications $. Have they lost their bearings as the business model migrates, like the Mad Men (& women) they may truly always have been?

    The phrase “documentary film” is relatively new — circa approx. 1924. Buts docs are so 1990. Ostensible Non-fiction narrative filmmaking is the ethical battleground now. http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2009/session_detail/2683/

    Meanwhile, to end on a somewhat humorous note, some film companies are about to give out awards for how well their erstwhile toilet bowl obsessed Sr. V.P. executives (e.g. Elise Pearlstein) and corporate sponsors can eat from the most expensive restaurants and choicest purveyors of local produce — but that’s another comment for another time. http://www.participantmedia.com/2013/09/participant-media-launches-1st-annual-food-awards/ Stay tuned.

  • Lisa Leeman

    Really appreciate your thoughtful posts about form & documentaries. I love seeing doc filmmakers play with form. It feels like there’s some invisible shifting line between re-enactment & hybrid form, and deceit… far be it for me to draw that line, but I know in my gut when a film has crossed that line… Some other ‘hybrid’ examples to add to the canon: Touching The Void; Man On Wire; Last Call at the Oasis; Might Times: The Children’s March; & The Swenkas, one of my all-time favorite films. Also, some of Jay Rosenblatt’s films. Chronicle of a Summer; Sans Soleil….

    • JoeS

      I agree that there is a line where a film falls into deceit – I think both EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP and CATFISH cross it. If I had to try and create a definition, it would be that as long as the artful filmmaking technique (animation, re-enactment, use of stock footage etc) is used to try and tell a straightforward truthful telling of the real life story it is ok. But, as in EXIT or CATFISH, when that technique fools or tricks the audience or adds “new” facts that may or may not even have occured, then it crosses that line.
      Inexact to be sure, but that is my ‘gut’ feeling.

  • christine

    Hi Tom — What’s your take on “Catfish” — ruse or hybrid?

    • Tom Roston

      Hi. This is also in reply to some of the comments below. The grey area of judging docs for their manipulation of the truth can be very tricky. Not that I don’t do it as well. Just as I judge TRANSFORMERS for pandering to the lowest common denominator, in a way that isn’t just a formal critique but also almost a moral one (I’m offended by how stupid that movie is), I also judge docs that manipulate the truth. Saying you’re one thing when you’re something else can be a cool trick or an offensive one. Like Lisa says, she knows it when she sees it. That’s why I have a like/hate relationship with CATFISH, although now that it’s a tv show, it has given up the ghost. Here’s a good review of what it’s become: http://vult.re/1fDmrUW

      • Tom Roston

        But I realize I didn’t directly answer your question: my feeling is that it is 80% hybrid and 20% ruse. So, if you’re of the opinion that you can’t just half kill someone, then CATFISH is guilty as charged.

        • JoeS

          And, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP?

          • Tom Roston

            Interesting. I’d say 70% hybrid and 30% ruse but because it’s a film by an artist who builds his identity upon knowing/not knowing and conceptual art, it offends me much less than CATFISH. In EXIT, the posture is “i’m an artist so screw you if you can’t figure it out.” In CATFISH it’s “we’re just sweet guys trying to connect in this crazy social media age.” Who’d you rather be lied to by?

          • JoeS

            That’s fine as a work of “art” – just don’t call yourself a “documentary”.

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  • Sally Mansfield

    According to Lisa Leeman’s comment below , Diane Weyermann & Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis” (Participant Media) is a top “hybrid” documentary, but presents itself to children and Millennials (PivitTV audience as factually accurate documentary journalism: http://www.takepart.com/lastcall. It is also disgraceful that Jim Berk and Jeff Skoll’s for-profit company continues to offer docufiction in the guise of social justice and engage in marketing campaigns that conceal the overseas oil state (Qatar) funding of the films. Just shameful. Weyermann is supposed to discuss the outreach issue at the IDFA Academy forum on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22, IDFAcademy Day 2 — 10.00-12.00 | Compagnietheater – Grote Zaal Plenary Session: Docs for Change – See more at: http://www.idfa.nl/industry/idfacademy/idfacademy-program.aspx#sthash.ROhc1BBm.dpuf — and the Dutch and international media should press them on their misuse of the “hybrid” documentary form. (Note: Weyermann’s name was deleted from the initial announcement after concerns were expressed in social media about her past history of using the media to amplify misrepresentations through free marketing to journalists at film festivals.) Journalists need to question billionaire funded propaganda and the clubby corruption of film festival hype and start pressing the highly paid producers of these films to justify manipulation of public opinion for their personal gain and Participant’s Media’s concealed motive to sell misinformation for profit.

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