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.