Without thinking about it, it seems easy to define the genre of documentary. Simply, a film that shows real footage, interviews or depicts real people and gives factual information. However, many documentaries, like creative nonfiction, embellish the truth and become subjective accounts. Facts are lost but artistry and intrigue are gained, making it more of a “film” and less of a PBS special.
So how can we identify this fine line between documentary and fiction and better define the genre? Three films, Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” (1990), James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” (2008) and Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” (2012) are examples of critically acclaimed movies that each represent a specific quality of documentation.
“Close-Up” is not listed or advertised as a documentary at all. The film is a true story of man who impersonated a famous Iranian director, not to steal or deceive, but because he thoroughly respected the director and wanted to someday make films. Kiarostami approaches the film in a unique way, by having all the actual people who were involved in the event re-enact the events as they took place. He also got permission to film the actual court hearing of this man, and was often in the film himself, as were his cameras and crews.
Why, then, is this not a documentary? Surely it has more elements of reality than a simple biopic or Hollywood historical fiction, as the main actors are the actual people involved in what the film is trying to show. The directorial intervention also calls to mind a documentary, as the visuals of the director, camera and crew are often used to give documentaries a feeling of rawness and reality.
Kiarostami wants us to feel that reality and to be very much aware that we are watching a film, that we are watching real (or real enough) events. Though not classified as a documentary, this film might be the closest to a true form of the genre, combining cinematic style with reality to create a picture that is entertaining as well as informative.
“Man on Wire” does not stray too far from Kiarostami’s example, but in contrast is thought of as a documentary and won the best documentary feature Oscar in 2008. “Man on Wire” is the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. To create the film, Marsh combined home video from Petit, contemporary narration from Petit himself and clever reenactments that never verge on the ridiculous (think the opposite of the History Channel). We never see the director; the entire story is subjective, following the story in the way that Petit wants us to. It is artistic and engaging, and most likely embellished.
Does the lack of factual evidence render this film less a documentary than others? The Academy surely didn’t think so. As a creative non-fiction piece, this film was widely successful in its ability to inspire and engage the audience, a feat sometimes difficult with so-called “documentary” films.
Finally, we come to “The Invisible War,” a recent Academy Award nominee documentary about rape in the military. Possibly the epitome of information-based documentaries, it would perhaps feel more at home as a NOVA special than on the big screen. The information in this documentary is extremely important and terrifying, and has actually inspired change in military legislation already. It serves as an excellent eye opener to problems of rape and sexual assault in the armed forces through mostly first person narratives and on-screen facts.
However, it has the filmic quality of a Windows Movie-Maker project or a PBS special report, and it’s hard to allow it space in the film canon as it is today. It is a film that raises the question of information versus artistry, form versus reality. Where the previous two documentaries were more personal, sentimental and formalistic, this was interview and information-style reporting. Do both have space in the documentary genre?
Of course there are many other examples of films that blur the lines of documentary and drama. “5 Broken Cameras” is basically just the raw, unplanned footage from a Palestinian farmer depicting the conflict and protests of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the domain of Michael Moore’s informative but skewing documentaries are a topic on their own.
The point, then, is to view the category of documentary as fluid and flexible, able to make space for the factual and the artistic. Each form has merit, and while a formalistic documentary might be more of a “film,” the impact of the content of a factual documentary cannot be ignored. In the end, all film is documenting something, and the category itself may be due for a reassessment so as not to pigeonhole films in an improper place.