Festival Daily

By Caley Moore

What is documentary? The simple answer – non-fiction film – seems to have become more complicated recently. In film or other media, the line between fact and fiction is often nebulous. Director Michael Moore has frequently been accused of manipulating the plots of his landmark documentaries, and even NBC admitted to using digitally enhanced fireworks – described by on-air hosts as a “cinematic device” – in its coverage of the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics.

While films that combine non-fiction footage with invented components are nothing new, more and more documentarians seem to be experimenting with crossover forms of storytelling, aspiring to what author Michael Ondaatje has described as “the truth of fiction,” an emotional and symbolic vérité.

“People have been expanding the boundaries of what we think of as documentary,” says Thom Powers, programmer of the Festival’s Real to Reel section. “In general, inventiveness is exciting.” This year, several filmmakers mix non-fiction elements with fictional forms and content, exploring ideas of perception and memory to illuminate subjective experience.

In 24 City, Jia Zhang-ke, one of China’s most innovative directors, chronicles the closure of Chengdu City’s monolithic Factory 420 and its imminent reincarnation as an apartment complex for a new generation of wealthy Chinese. Smoothly integrating interviews with former factory workers and scripted monologues performed by some of the country’s most recognizable faces (Lv Liping, Joan Chen, Chen Jianbin and Zhao Tao), this documentary fiction seeks to reveal the spectrum of feeling bound up in the historical narrative. Hyperreal imagery adds to the hybrid effect, injecting a fantastic quality to the landscape. “History is always a blend of facts and imagination,” Jia says in his director’s statement, and his meditative composition makes its poignancies shimmer.

Like 24 City, Je Veux Voir (I Want to See) contemplates the cinematic relationship between fact and fiction. Devastated by the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel, Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige wondered about the purpose of film in the face of such destruction. “What can cinema do?” they asked themselves. The pair decided to invite film icon Catherine Deneuve to Beirut to visit the scene of the conflict in person, not only for herself but as cinema’s symbolic embodiment. “She radiates fiction,” they explain. But beyond this invented premise, much of the film has a documentary feel. The film’s other lead, Rabih Mroué, a Lebanese actor playing himself, first meets Deneuve on camera, and most of their dialogue is improvised as they explore the wreckage of another war. Through their act of witnessing, reality and fiction come together in an unusual yet powerful creation.

The documentary Waltz with Bashir also depicts a battle-scarred Lebanon, but does so through animation rather than real-life footage. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman uses rotoscope-like imagery to delve into his personal experience of war. As a young man, he fought in Beirut when his country invaded Lebanon in 1982, but has long suppressed all memories of the conflict. Haunted by a recurring dream fragment, he tries to reconstruct events from the night of the Shabra and Shatila Massacre, when Israeli soldiers, including his own division, failed to stop Christian Phalangist militias from slaughtering thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Powers links the film to graphic novels like Maus and Palestine, which proved the potential of the comic form for non-fiction narratives. “If [Waltz with Bashir] wasn’t animated, I don’t think you’d have nearly as much conversation about it,” he says. Animation propels the interior quality of the film to the forefront, bringing lucid visions, drug trips and harrowing recollections to life. At the same time, the graphic form serves Folman’s objective search for what really happened in Beirut. “There are people interviewed in the film who probably wouldn’t have participated had their faces been shown,” says Powers. In this way, “The animation is getting closer to the truth, unlocking the door.”

Blind Loves is another documentary at this year’s Festival that uses animation (in this case a short but surreal sequence involving a tussle with an octopus) to express an internal landscape. Slovakian director Juraj Lehotský takes the viewer into the fantasy world of Peter, a blind music teacher who shares a cramped apartment with his wife, who is also blind. Peter’s animated undersea adventure offers the viewer a glimpse into his rich imaginative world, which contrasts his modest physical existence. The film also explores the lives and loves of three other blind people: Miro, a Roma man enamoured with the partially sighted Monika; Elena, pregnant with her first child; and Zuzana, a 14-year-old girl soon to start high school. Lehotský’s aim – to convey through visual means the intimate perceptions of his blind subjects – is inherently paradoxical, and certain scenes (including those shot in near-darkness) appear to be staged, creating a deliberately indistinct fusion of reality and performance.

Filmmakers seem increasingly willing to blur the line between documentary and fiction, but are audiences ready to embrace these hybrid works? The backlash against James Frey’s infamous memoir A Million Little Pieces when parts of the book were exposed as fabrications underlines the potential sensitivity of the issue: at what point does artistic licence become deception? The answer might depend both on how a work is framed and what people expect of a specific genre.

Powers hesitates to generalize about the presumptions viewers bring to documentaries. “Audiences have as many different expectations as there are audience members,” he says. “I think you find very diverse opinions, even when looking at high-profile documentary makers like Michael Moore and Errol Morris.”

Films that push the boundaries of the form might generate controversy, but that’s not something to shun, in his opinion. “One of the things that’s wonderful about the documentary section is its ability to provoke debate,” says Powers. Instead of watching a film and breezing out to dinner afterwards, “I’d rather that audiences go and have a conversation.” Of course, like fact and fiction, sometimes dinner and conversation can go together.

Sept. 9, 3:15pm, AMC 1   
Sept. 11, 6:15pm, AMC 2

Sept. 10, 9:00pm, AMC 4   
Sept. 10, 9:00pm, AMC 5   
Sept. 12, 4:45pm, Isabel Bader Theatre   
Sept. 13, 4:15pm, Varsity 2   

Sept. 10, 6:45pm, Varsity 7   
Sept. 11, 2:00pm, AMC 3