Nothing is Real

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Luuk Imhann

“Almost nothing is real,” says Jane Pollard during her press conference. She is one of the two directors of the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. “But,” the film journalist interrupts, “it’s a documentary, right?” Pollard smiles and answers: “Yes, it is a documentary, because it is about a real, living person. But then again, a lot of what you see isn’t real. We can’t call this a feature fiction film, though — we don’t know what to call it, so we call it a documentary.”

The fictitious documentary is not a new genre, but during the 64th edition of the Berlinale its status is still being called into question by film journalists. Why, you ask? Is the meaning of the phrase so hard to understand? Well, no, but the trouble with the fictitious documentary is not its precise definition; it is, rather, the broad and seemingly limitless way in which it has inserted itself in the spectrum of film genres. When is the term fictitious documentary applicable? When does a work stop being a documentary (albeit a fictional one) and start being a feature film? And when the maker of a documentary plays loose and fast with the facts (I’m thinking of the great works of Werner Herzog), at what point does film turn from documentary into fiction?

There’s no easy answer. There is simply no template for making cinema, nor is there a way to categorize all films ever made. Each journalist has to decide to which genre(s) a film belongs. That being said, some films are unmistakably fictional as well as documentaries, and during the 64th Berlinale there were some fine, definitive examples of this genre: the aforementioned 20,000 Days on Earth, the Michel Gondry/Noam Chomsky film Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? and the fictional crime-documentary L’Enlévement de Michel Houellebecq (The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq). These were undoubtedly examples of both fiction and documentary. Here’s a metaphor for the unsteady borders of the fictional documentary: it is hard to tell where the surf stops and the sea begins, but when you sail from England to the US, and you are on your third day and there is nothing but water to be seen in any direction you look, you are without doubt on the open sea.

20,000 Days on Earth is an exciting film about Nick Cave, with Cave playing himself. During the press conference, Cave applauded the editor (Jonathan Amos, justly rewarded with the prize for Best Editing at Sundance) and both directors (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard) for changing the pace and course of the scenes. When he spoke to actor Ray Winstone in his car, “it seemed like I wasn’t answering any of Ray’s questions, while in fact I was.” This might be seen as one of the cornerstone rules of the fictitious documentary: change the facts into something better.

The same can be said for The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. The French writer and poet really was kidnapped a few years ago, but has never described exactly what happened. In the film, Houellebecq plays himself, just as Cave does – and both, it should be said, do an excellent job – and is kidnapped by actors portraying criminals. What we see after that is what could have happened, but there is no way we can know for sure. That being said, even if the film is as close to the facts as possible, then there is the strange case of Houellebecq playing himself, while the kidnappers are being played by actors. If the facts portrayed in the film are true, it is closer to a fiction film than to a documentary. While the facts remain uncertain, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is quite a funny fictitious documentary.

As for Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, the interview between Gondry and Chomsky is real, and so are the subjects mentioned in the film. But Gondry took the material home each night and turned the rather theoretical discussions into animated sequences, therefore changing the film from a conversation with Chomsky (and his thoughts) into a look inside the absurdist brain of Gondry. Gondry has found a way to make documentary fictitious, and he may not even realize it.

In the end, should there ever be a canon of fictitious documentary films, I think it is wise to keep in consideration that a lot of films call themselves fictional documentaries, when they are in fact fictional feature films. So Woody Allen’s Zelig and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap should not be listed in the canon. The films that should be included are Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the Joaquin Phoenix pic I’m Still Here, the three titles mentioned above, and the famed American fake doco Catfish. Although, of course, all this lies in the hands of the person who is making that list.

Edited by Lesley Chow