Seeing is Believing

in 31st Torino Film Festival

by Demetrios Matheou

When the international documentary jury in Turin awarded its prize on November 30, to Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness” (2013), one of its members praised the festival for a programme that reflected the desire of today’s documentary filmmakers to push the boundaries of their medium.

In particular, he mentioned the growing tendency towards “hybrid” films that blur the lines between reality and fiction.

He was absolutely right to praise the festival in this way. And from the outside looking in – as a Fipresci jury member most of my attention was taken up by the feature film competition – the documentary selection was a strong one.

Yet there are two supplementary observations to be made about “hybrid” filmmaking.

One is that, like so many “trends”, what seems very much a contemporary expansion of the documentary form actually has its roots in the past. The films of Robert Flaherty spring to mind, such as “Nanook of the North” (1922) and “Man of Aran” (1934), in which the director guided real people, in isolated environments towards creating narratives of his own design, towards his own “truth” – anthropology with a twist.

And then there is a film showing in Turin’s excellent New Hollywood retrospective. In “Medium Cool” (1969) Haskell Wexler inserted actors (including star Robert Forster) and a fictional drama into the real, often violent events on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. As well as a technically bravura piece of work, it offers a compelling portrait of a country traumatised by political assassinations, the Vietnam War, student protests and the battle for civil rights.

Although much admired, to my knowledge Wexler’s film was not followed by a plethora of imitators. But Flaherty, Wexler and others did plant seeds that are finally blooming. And what is notable today is how common this blurring of the lines has become. Indeed, the documentary film festival CPH:Dox is characterized by its preference for such films. A few years ago, when accepting Copenhagen’s best film award for his sublime “The Four Times” (Le quattro volte, 2010) Michelangelo Frammartino slyly suggested to the audience that, ‘I didn’t know my film was a documentary.’

My second thought is that while most people refer to the hybrid approach in relation to documentary, we now see it more frequently in films that either present themselves as fiction, or are designated as such by their selection in the feature programmes of festivals.

Two films in Turin’s feature film competition offer a case in point.

The Thai film “Karaoke Girl” (Sao Karaoke, 2013) by Visra Vichit-Vadakan follows the day-to-day experiences of a teenage girl who has moved from the country to Bangkok, where she works as a hostess in a karaoke bar. This is not an actress, but a real escort presenting a sanitized version of herself. City scenes focus on an unsuccessful attempt at romance, which is possibly invented, interrupted when she returns home and we get a striking sense of the rural poverty that she has escaped, which certainly is not.

By having one foot in fiction, Vadakan creates an intriguing, Brechtian distance – it makes the audience work all the harder to engage with the woman’s life, which isn’t a bad thing. But at the same time the director is allowing herself to be very coy about the sexual reality of her subject’s profession, and that coyness weakens the film.

Nevertheless, it was a very engaging effort, and a “hybrid” in the Flaherty model.

In contrast, “Age of Panic” (La bataille de Solférino, 2013) by Frenchwoman Justine Triet has the narrative conceit and political frisson of “Medium Cool”.

The film is set in 2012, on the day of the French general election that was to bring Francois Hollande the presidency. Into the real action, Triet inserts a heated family melodrama, as a female reporter tries to cover the responses of the crowds on the street while battling with her psychotic ex-husband over his access to their children – at one point the crisis involving mum, dad, kids and the babysitter takes place in the heart of the real-life crowds.

Triet cleverly finds parallels between the hostility and intolerance of the couple and the same characteristics of the political activists (from the left and far right) around them, between the intimate and the public, the personal and the national. Much more than simply a showy device, her approach cleverly fuels her themes. I found the result to be fresh, funny and very smart.

Interestingly, Triet has a background in documentary, this being her first feature film, albeit one that uses documentary as a tool. I think we will see a lot more of her.

I also think that there will be a time soon when we stop commenting on the hybrid, or blurred nature of films, wondering about the extent to which a film is a feature or a documentary. The ever-changing worlds of the internet, of social media and film technology blur those lines every day, and as a consequence film audiences are becoming ever more sophisticated in the way that they read what’s on screen before them.

Demetrios Matheou