A Whole Lot Stranger Than Fiction By Laszlo Kriston
There is something symbolic about how American documentaries use the most simple tools of their genre: the old, black-and-white stills. They scan them into computers, divide up each elements (human figures, background, foreground, objects), and make each layer move slightly. Stills aren’t standing still: history as such is no longer composed of static events. It is more organic than that: when investigative documentarians dig into it, they can illuminate ramifications of past events.
Ever since Errol Morris jazzed up the ‘talking heads’ formula using the so-called ‘Interrotron’ (terror and interview) method and Godfrey Reggio created his grandiose, mesmerizingly spectacular series of visual symphonies on Earth-bound human life (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqatsi, Anima Mundi, Naqoyqatsi), documentaries weren’t the same anymore. From Errol Morris’ ‘interrotron’ emerged the pranksters – documentarians, like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and the team from 2003’s The Yes Men whowere stars in their own right, often upstaging their own subjects with their humorous approach.
In less agenda-driven docs also, the director’s own relationship to his subject takes front seat. Seemingly external, but in fact, internally motivated, self-discovery journeys populate the genre (Protocols of Zion, Paul Mazursky’s Yippee,) that can take on quite a poetic resonance (the end of Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, or the autobiographical intro of Lech Kowalski’s East of Paradise). Take one step further, and, in what would be called ‘entanglement docs,’ the documentarians become involved in lives of those they film (Operation Filmmaker, The Take, Indestructible).
What’s the difference between some of the best docs of our time, and the opening montage of Southland Tales, a fictional, utopian movie? Formalistically speaking, not much. They’re equally influenced by textuality: media-informed blends of split image screens, graphics, charts, maps, animation. The visual style a doc director chooses is often a statement in itself.
Animation enchances the retelling of past moments greatly, giving it a somewhat abstract, dreamy, surreal feel that strikes us as even more strange knowing that those moments actually happened in real life (Chicago 10, Waltz with Bashir, and the gripping cartoon sequence in Operation Homecoming). Short snippets of animation are often in use to point out factual errors or false myths humorously (For the Bible Tells Me So, Super Size Me), whereas photo collages are employed to similarly iconoclastic effect (Lost in La Mancha, Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst).
Montage, too, is king. Docs on historical subjects become suspenseful accounts of sweeping events by using densely packed montages that sum up whole historical eras and political processes. These (The Laramie Project, The Fog of War, The Rape of Europa, Surfwise) are far more thrilling to watch than some of the glossiest Hollywood thrillers.
Invoking & Evoking
It is the re-enactments and reconstructions of historical events where the lines between fictional and non-fictional filmmaking blurs the most. “For me they aren’t really two things. When I do a documentary I use all the dramatic situations to feature them as well as possible. It is told in a way with the music where you can actually see the scene”, Barbet Schroeder said about the Terror’s Advocate.
Using actors in recreating past events are widespread (Touching the Void, Children of the Rain), and in certain occassions, directors convince the real life subjects themselves to do the reenactments (War Dance, Zoo).
In stylized segments, relying mostly on the movements of silhouette-figures in chiaroscuro lighting, Man on Wire restages the plotting of a group to plant a tight rope wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Consequently, “(it) had the structure of a heist movie, with planning, action, setback, and a succesful execution of the plot,” director James Marsh exaplined in Sarajevo.
In Stranded, a film that chronicles a sports team’s survival of a plane crash in the snowy Andes, “I wanted to create scenes that look like fragments of the survival’s memory,” said Gonzalo Arijon at a Sarajevo panel discussion called ‘Naturalism vs. Artifice in Docs and Fictions’. Talking about constructed reality, Arijon placed the crashed plane on a beach and with overexposed film stock, he disguised the sand as snow.
Docs now show reality the way narrative features do: cinematically, through quasi-subliminal hints and signs, in a carefuly orchestrated amalgam of visuals, atmosphere, music and acting.
It is possible nowadays to actually get into the head of a documentary’s subject (protagonist?), and share with the audience what went on in his head. Accessing a stream of consciousness is no longer a privilege of literature (Proust, Wolf, Joyce) and feature filmmaking. Extensive monologues replace the actual showing of the subject (Robert Evans in The Kid Stays in the Picture), and that method gives way even to post-mortem talk, when the protagonist speaks from the grave, as an admittedly departed person (in Unfolding Florence).
According to ancient spiritual traditions, every moment in time is stored in what they call the “Akasha chronicles” – a theory that many modern scientists and thinkers seem to agree on, such as Jung (collective unconscious) Rupert Sheldrake (morphogenetic field) and Ervin Laszlo (psi field). All subjectivity, every individual’s total inner mental data (thought processes, impressions, feelings) are conserved via energy vibration and can be accessed by the ‘living,’ Errol Morris’s Standard Operation Procedure, with its elaborate split-image trickery and photo-montages, feels like digging into those Akasha chronicles. In it, even intangible constructs like plans or ideas, never written down (Platonic ideas?), are conserved, like Joe Strummer’s vision of an ideal world in his sketch of people sitting around the fire (Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten). Even humor in war-time drama, something that no fictional feature film dared to show in recent world events can be accessed from the accumulated writings and oral history of Iraqi soldiers (diaries, retold jokes), as in Operation Homecoming.
No moment of the past, no experience will be lost and forgotten. No movie represents that sentiment more appropriately than Sarajevo Fest entry Waltz with Bashir, itself a quest for lost memories, where we trespass into the subconscious layers of one man’s mind. The film’s emblematic sequence, naked young soldiers walking out of the see on an urban coast, is an image that may not be an actual event, but rather an image in the mind that is substituted for a more painful one that the protagonist cannot remember.
Mainstream documentaries, it appears, have found cinematically fascinating ways to dwelve into that immense, Akashaic treasure box of mankind’s collective memory.