Hybrid Challenges

in 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Maria Fosheim Lund

Documentary filmmakers have it easy. Unlike directors of fiction film, who laborto construe a fictional universethat resembles the real world, as we know it, documentarians needn’t worry. Realism in fiction film — if/when it is sought — will alwaysbea high-hanging fruit, a difficult goal to reach. However strange, extraordinary or unfamiliar the setting and story, the audience is likely to accept the real-ness, true-ness and accurate-ness of a documentary universe. In this year’s Rotterdam Bright Future section, for example, the audience witnessed the incredible history of a bespectacled Catalan middle-aged man acting out his boyhood dreams of a Tarzan-like jungle life in The Creator of the Jungle (Sobre la marxa, dir.: Jordi Morato), complete with a leather outfit covering his private parts. Also much to the audiences’ delight was the ululating sound of Tarzan’s cry, and the drumming of his chest. The story was so incredible, that even the film’s narrator seemed baffled by the aloof protagonist.

Filmmakers making their foray into hybrid film universes, blending fiction and non-fiction, put an extra challenge on themselves, and their audience. Will the film be perceived as more than a contrivance and a trick, when the viewer is let in on the secret? Will we be told from the get-go, or do we have to wait for the end credits and be surprised to find them reveal actors’ names? And how will we place the film on the scale that pits realism against fiction?

Reenactment has long been viewed as auseful and necessary tool with its long and sometimes complicated history with documentary film.Sometimes underlined, flagged, highlighted, highly stylized or emphasized, while at other times more discreet and difficult to unveil. In the wake of The Act of Killing (dir.: Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012), can anything really surprise or shock anaudience, when it comes to what might be calledself-reflexive reenactment documentary?

These questions and several otherspush to the surface when watching Anna Odell’s much discussed feature film debut The Reunion (Ätertraffen). Odell turnsto reenactment out of necessity — the first half of the film is a fictionalized account of what might have taken place had she had been invited to her school reunion, only, she wasn’t. While Odell doesn’t announce the use of reenactment until much later in the film, and even then she leaves the audience unaware of the full extent to which scenes, characters and reenactments carried out by actors, she does place clues and leave hints. The reunion party in Odell’s imagined version tips into intentionally tragic farcewith levels of conflict and tension paralleling Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen, 1998). If we didn’t already suspect it, Odell reveals the scheme when the film takesan abrupt change of tone, midway through. From there on out Odell makes it her mission to confront her old school bullies with several aggravating facts: She was victimized in school by her classmates, suffered mental abuse andwascompletely ignored. To top things off, she never received an invitation to the reunion party.

Unable to achieve any satisfactory answers, and unsuccessful in establishing fruitful dialogue with her former classmates, most of whom refuse to participate in the film, Odell sees only one way out. She must also reenact what it might have looked like had she been able to confront her former classmates. The result is a perplexing hybrid film that challenges the viewer to accept or reject Odell’s employment of reenactment altogether, being forced to realize time and again that what we first believe to be “reality” is indeed part of Odell’s fictional universe, disguising itself as documentary.

Edited by Tara Judah