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.
… according to the festival catalogue, this is a documentary, but it doesn’t feel like one
Also playing his fictionalized self is Kees Brienen in Dead Body Welcome, which tells the fictionalized true story of the filmmaker, who once agreed to meet his friend in Ghana to watch a solar eclipse, and upon arrival found that his friend had died. Brienen decided to tell this story, but at the same time honour his friend. He waited for the next solar eclipse to pass over India, and found a beautiful spot in Sikkim to serve as a fitting location. He then filmed his own arrival, his encounter with the remains of his friend, a ritual the locals perform for the latter, and the transportation of the body to the Ganges – where it was burnt in the open, in accordance with Indian tradition. The story is introduced in review, with the – not very original – text “This is what happened” and Brienen performing a monologue in a hotel room, a highly journalistic performative act in which he addresses his deceased friend, while the camera takes on a surveillance role. Both act and point of view set the documentary tone. This tone is reinforced by the following shots of Indian traffic, the chaos, the noise, filmed from inside a car, and shots of Brienen walking the crowded streets, filmed close-up with a hand-held camera.
The film has a very observational style, but as in Penumbra, the camera sometimes takes self-conscious positions: like when it is “awaiting” the caravan transporting the friend’s body further downhill on its way to the Ganges River; or when it’s filming Brienen and his driver from the top of a building while they walk the street. Nonetheless, thanks to the delicate balance between Brienen’s presence and a contemporary observation of India, its beauty and its ugliness, the film feels like documentary rather than fiction.
Another example: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala conceived a documentary about Peter Kern, the highly capricious Austrian enfant terrible filmmaker, in which they thought they could have Kern create the ending. But they soon found that Kern cannot be directed. So while the film starts off as what appears to be a proper documentary, with the filmmakers asking questions off-screen, observing Kern, and sometimes appearing on-screen by accident, it turns into Kern performing himself in the second part, and this in turn reframes the first part. The crucial scene occurs after some 80 minutes, when Kern has moved from his tiny housing project apartment to a new place. Fiala arrives there, and tells Kern that they hadn’t finished filming in the old place yet, so could they please put the furnishings back and return to shoot some additional footage? Kern rages, calling the filmmakers amateurs: “… I’ll never set foot in that flat again and that’s that! … ” Falia pushes: “We have to finish filming this movie. There is no way around it.” Kern rages on, then “Cut!”, smiles, and a hug: “That was fantastic!” Authenticity cracks and falls apart. From then on, it is clear that Kern is performing, will be performing, and probably has been performing all along. Although the film flaunts its construction throughout, beginning with the opening question addressed to Kern: “Peter, what sort of film are we making about you?” and including the directing of the domestic, what is at stake here is not the authenticity of the footage itself, but the authenticity of the protagonist; the construction of the film is clear from the start, but now it appears that the presence of Kern was an act. This invites us to think about documentary performances by definition: don’t all participants somehow construct their presentation of self? Don’t they all consider what to show and tell, and what not to? However you feel about this, Kern’s performance brings the doc closer to what is sometimes regarded as pure fiction: the deliberate and possibly prepared and rehearsed presentation of a character.
What these films reveal in their rich exploitation of fiction and documentary conventions is that the two are inseparable in the end, that both rely in the same techniques, and that any participant performs. Stories are how we communicate about the world, and narratives that do not hide their construction seem actually more transparent and sincere than those that strictly adhere to documentary conventions of unmediated access to other people’s worlds._