We all know there is a thin line between reality and fiction. Some filmmakers at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), happily exploit this idea and combine the two, turning reality into fiction, or showing the fiction of reality. Karaoke Girl by Visra Vichit Vadakan combines the two in quite a straightforward way. Penumbra by Eduardo Villanueva is advertised as a documentary by the festival, looks like fiction, and is something in between. Dead Body Welcome by Kees Brienen is a fiction of sorts, but looks like a documentary. And Kern by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala shows that documentary and fiction merge seamlessly, and might indeed be inseparable.
The IFFR is known for its preference for innovative films from young filmmakers. In terms of documentaries this is nothing different, as it shows many films that mix fiction and documentary conventions and investigate the outer edges of the genre, though it doesn’t shy away from proper auteur docs too. So how do docs negotiate the divide between documentary and fiction?
Karaoke Girl quite straightforwardly mixes documentary scenes with fictionalized ones. The film is about Sa, who came to Bangkok from rural Thailand to earn money for her family when she was only fifteen. She worked in a factory, but then decided that working in a bar and as an escort would make more money. The film shows her current life and her family’s situation in documentary scenes. Her father talks about the family’s unfortunate circumstances and the need for Sa to help provide. Sa’s childhood memories as well as more recent memories and her contemporary dreams – those elements which cannot be visualized in a purely documentary way – are visualized through fictional scenes in which Sa plays herself, based on a script the filmmaker wrote after spending some time with her. An important line is the one about a promising client who takes her places and shows her his affection, until he meets an acquaintance and betrays her. They meet again, spend the night together, and he leaves her money, betraying her again. Mr. Right is obviously waiting somewhere else. In the meantime, Sa dreams of being a singer, and the film ends with her staged performance. The combination of fiction and documentary works well, the scenes relate to each other in a natural way.
Penumbra is another film in which the protagonist plays himself, or at least partially. It’s a film about an elderly couple, living in a remote area in Mexico. Adelelmo Jimenez is a hunter, Dolores takes care of the home, and of him. Their son is dead. Villanueva silently observes them, as they go about their daily routines and rituals. According to the festival catalogue, this is a documentary, but it doesn’t feel like one. For instance, in hunting scenes, the bird he shoots comes falling from the sky; and when he hunts a deer, he shoots it, follows the blood trail, and finds it neatly lying there, while the camera is looking down on it. Also, Adelelmo is filmed from a bird’s-eye view while walking through the forest, displaying visual awareness and pre-mediation. The editing reinforces this: when his wife
Dolores walks to an altar in their house and lights a candle, the camera has been waiting for her. Both walk in and out of the frame frequently, which emphasizes the presence of the camera on-site, anticipating the protagonists’ actions. In dialogues, everything that is being said is relevant – and all this suggests a script. Although there is no music in the film, the sounds, especially those in the forest, such as birdsong and water running, seem accentuated rather than completely natural. Adelelmo and Dolores play themselves in a fictional narrative.
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