Documentaries or Low-Budget Fiction?

in 13rd Perm Flahertiana - International Documentary Film Festival

by Andrea Martini

For some time now, documentary films are no longer kept in a separate world as children of a lesser God. Perhaps, though, their passport to glamour, or at least to acceptance within the fold of major cinema, has been too costly, a price as yet unclear but which, in the long run, could undermine the basic tenets of the genre.

Some decades ago, this once noble and prestigious genre of cinema found itself  relegated to the ghetto set aside for works produced exclusively (or almost) for television — assuming, naturally, that the works in question did indeed have some purpose, and were not just the output of a minority, transient vocation of wannabe directors of fiction. Things have changed in the meantime. The Venice Film Festival gave the Golden Lion to Sacro GRA (a play on words referring to ‘Holy Grail’ and GRA, acronym for Rome’s ring road) by Gianfranco Rosi, an Italian documentary filmmaker based in the US who has a number of prestigious films to his credit such as Below Sea Level (2008) and El Sicario — Room 164 (2010).

Indeed, the decision by the panel of judges led by Bernardo Bertolucci to give the top prize to Rosi’s documentary did raise a few eyebrows, even seeming to throw down the gauntlet to other films of no lesser quality that were left aside. The crux of the issue lies in the reason for this decision.

There had been one important precedent. In 2004, Cannes awarded Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 with the Golden Palm, although the motivation of the jury (headed by Quentin Tarantino) did seem more emotionally, if not ideologically, based. If other, more recent examples are added to the equation, it could be said that the awards served above all to enshrine the right of this genre to compete with works of fiction. The question is, therefore, whether this recognition is beneficial to documentaries or is it rather the beginning of the downward slippery slope to a standardisation that would cast into doubt the raison d’etre of many of them. In other words, would the price these films have to pay for being included in the selection in mainstream festivals (the more so when the question of awards arises) be to dilute their nature and embrace the cultural and emotional standards of fiction films. The inevitable outcome would be that the already scanty funding and cash that goes into documentary production would be increasingly channeled towards this hybrid type of cinema.

I participated in the recent 13th Flahertiana festival at Perm as a Fipresci juror. This is an event dedicated to documentary cinema, and is the high point of the work that PermKino carries out with commitment all year round. On the whole, the quality of the entries both international and Russian was good and comparable to that of other documentary festivals that are unjustifiably better known. A cursory leaf through the catalogue, however, highlights the scarcity of works that in one way or another could be broadly classified under one of the four classic headings, namely ethnic (à la Jean Rouch); in-depth (similar to Weiseman); investigative (Michael Moore) and historic reconstruction (e.g. The Spirit of ’45 by Ken Loach). Many are clear examples of docufiction in which the dividing line between documentary and classic fiction in the broadest sense was considerably less clear.

Many of the works screened at Perm were about characters ranging from the paradoxical to the eccentric and exaggerated, virtually eschewing analysis — the prerogative of documentaries — and instead, narrating them in a way typical of fiction cinema. In Rent a Family Inc. by Kasar Astrup Schröder, a Japanese man supports his family by organizing and renting out bogus family members for weddings, funerals and other occasions where a degree of officialdom is called for. It’s a pity that the film makes no attempt to analyze the phenomenon but merely depicts what is only to be expected in terms of the subject coming to grips with problems and triumphs, much of which was recreated for the benefit of the camera. The same applies to the bizarre wedding broker of the Croatian film Gangster of Love by Nebojsa Slijepcevic, and to the couple of Bukhari friends rebelling against their tradition in the Israeli film Handa Handa 4 by David Ofek and Neta Shoshani, or again the American soldier in Polish Illusions by Jacob Dammas who moves to Poland to collect and renovate old wartime cars, and even, to a certain extent, the deserving winner of the 13th Golden Nonook award, Trucker and the Fox by Arash Lahooti from Iran, that tell the story of  a director of incoherent films with animals as actors. In all these works, reality seems to be subverted by a highly sophisticated pro-filmic tendency with the result that very little of the representation of reality — implicitly what a documentary film is all about — comes through. There is an ever-increasing search for the effect, the giddy main scene, the hijacking of the audience’s attention by means more typical to fiction films. Reconstructions acted out with people who despite themselves end up playing a part are becoming increasingly frequent.

We can only hope that this trend does not become too widespread and that documentaries, at least those we have come to appreciate in film festivals, do not find themselves simply transformed into works of fiction produced by other means, or by scanty means. In short, that they do not become merely low-budget films.

Edited by Yael Shuv