I think that, if there is to be a rapprochement in the way we treat these two disciplines, then it should be fiction that makes the first move. Documentary shouldn't move closer to fiction but fiction closer to documentary.
When this thought, such as it is, occurred to me, I researched what I could and discovered that this idea has had plenty of traction over the years:
Every film is a documentary of its actorsJean-Luc Godard
Yes, every film is a documentary of its actors. It records them at a particular point in their lives for posterity and for eternity. Whatever the on-screen persona or character, whatever the makeup, it is nigh on impossible to obfuscate the person.
Not only that, but it records them doing what inspired them the most - acting. A film is the plate on which a butterfly is preserved.
Every feature film in Hollywood is a documentary about Hollywood.
A similar thought. In this case, Bitomsky proposes that the nature of the film - its subject, its style, its actors, its length - provide an insight into the concerns and needs of the Hollywood machine. That is the theory, at least.
However, all the film can tell you with complete accuracy is that it was made in Hollywood. It cannot say if it was part of a trend, or a radical departure. It cannot say if it succeeded or failed.
Every film is a documentary of its own making
Following on from Bitomsky and Godard, Rivette's pensee folds the two ideas together. What is on the screen cannot be argued with - it exists. And yet, Rivette goes further than Godard to imply the world beyond the frame through the certainty of what is in it.
However, all of these thoughts are incomplete. They have something of the aphorism about them. The statements are cheeky because they are aware that the films cannot document things in the way they describe. They want to provoke thought. Accepting that documentaries can never be an immaculate realm of fact, individual films are still a too imperfect document of Actors, Hollywood and their own creation.
One must move on to where fiction film may lie side by side with Documentary and closer towards what I think may qualify (I too am being a little mischievous) fiction as documentary.
It is often heard that even the most fantastical fictions give evidence of the culture that produced it. They are a window into the politics of the time, a vane to the prevailing winds. Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders are two of the foremost directors who espouse this view but they speak for a consensus. It's hard to avoid reading into a film what one read in the newspapers the morning of the screening.
But, despite there being much to recommend it, this perspective is too simplistic. There are films that seek to be allegorical of or to grow organically from the world around them and those that cannot help but be. Yet there are many artistic demands on a fiction film that pull the focus away from the 'real' and blur it. Fiction films are extrapolations or simplifications of situations that are far better represented in traditional documentary with its notions of full responsibility to the truth.
In my mind, the similarities between fiction film and documentary film lie elsewhere and I will try and elaborate them here.
When Directors and Screenwriters discuss their works, they, more often than not, acknowledge that there is a world beyond the frame, that the character's world is part of a wider fictional world. We don't see certain planets and star systems in Star Wars but they exist. We also assume that there is much in that galaxy that we are not told about but lives on the edges of our minds and of the minds of the film-makers.
One could say that this world beyond the world is ill-defined, a mere backdrop, an afterthought, a creation that lives and breathes only to serve what the film is fundamentally 'about'. One could also point out that this microcosm of the wider world, the microcosm we concentrate on, with its characters and stories, exists first and the rest later comes later. Even so the outside is there.
Therefore, it stands to reason that one edits not by meticulously clipping away threads of what we already see but that one edits like a sculptor. You begin with a vast hulk of stone that represents the entire fictional world and you hew down to the essentials. What is on screen, then, is of what isn't rather than what is off-screen being a ghostly echo of what is on screen. A subtle change in emphasis may reveal fiction to be documentary.
If one is prepared to take these (not so) logical steps, every fiction film is a documentary of a fictional world.
Is what we see in A.I. not faithfully representative of the future world it takes place in? Perhaps I am clutching at straws, distorting and over-reaching. Perhaps I am putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps I am being mischievous for the sake of it. But it is a debate worth having. Only by stating the ridiculous can one properly think anew.
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Why is it that we watch fiction and documentary so differently. Is there a switch that we push when we know it's 'real' and when we know it's 'fantasy'? The narratives could be the same, the emotions created the same but we react differently to each. It's a mind-set.
Sure, in documentary the people, however artistically or manipulatively they are depicted, are real. We want to learn from a documentary and its immediacy invites us to learn about ourselves. This is less important in fiction film. Entertainment and stimulation come first partly because we want and expect them too. Documentary doesn't need to entertain or stimulate but inform with a modicum of flair. It's not the quality of the film-making so much as the quality and nutritional value of the unmediated story. We rightly hold them to different standards when it comes to 'agendas'.
Nevertheless if we go into both experiences with an open mind we will see that they are closer than we think.