A current documentary trend seems to be so-called hybrid films – documentaries that feature fictional expressions. At least judging by this year’s film selection at the Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF). In addition, this phenomenon was in the limelight during the festival’s eighth annual National Documentary Conference.
The emphasis on hybrid films was also mirrored through the films winning awards at the festival. The award for best film in the fairly hybrid-heavy program section Documentaire Extraordinaire, was won by the Austrian Brothers of the Night, which depicts a group of young Bulgarian men making ends meet by working as prostitutes in a Vienna bar. In this film, director Patric Chiha allows his main characters to play a fictionalised version of themselves, and portrays them through a stylised, colourful film language akin to Rainer Werner Fassbinders’ feature films. A similar expression is found in Jon Haukeland’s current (and not as stylised) What Young Men Do, awarded the BIFF best Norwegian documentary prize. Again, the young characters in the film play themselves, in this case based on a script built on their own experiences, coupled with more traditional documentary sequences.
Protection. An interesting aspect in both What Young Men Do and Brothers of the Night, is how their hybrid form afford the main characters some sort of protection. They are able to claim it was «all a film» rather than taking part in a «pure» documentary. Director Chiha emphasised this point at the aforementioned documentary conference in Bergen, during his presentation of Brothers of the Night, explaining that the young prostitute men partly originate from homophobic milieus, with wives and perhaps even children at home in Bulgaria.
Documentaries borrowing from fictional films, and vice versa, is nothing new. John Grierson, who originated the term documentary, described it as «a creative adaptation of reality», and already in Nannok of the North (1922), often considered the earliest feature length documentary, director Robert J. Flaherty used creative staging extensively. One example is how he instructed the film’s Inuits to use the more traditional hunting tools instead of the pistols they usually used, and had a special igloo made for indoor filming. Furthermore, the main character’s name was not even Nanook, and his spouse in the film was apparently not his real wife.
This was, however, a time when recording equipment was too cumbersome, heavy, and lighting weak for spontaneous and mobile «fly on the wall »-documentarism. Flaherty defended himself (according to the Wikipedia article on the film) by stating that film makers frequently have to adjust or distort something to «capture its true spirit». This is similar to today’s arguments about the use of hybrid expressions, almost 100 years later. Such elements do not have to sacrifice a film’s authenticity – on the contrary, it is thus possible to recreate environments or events otherwise inaccessible, with camera, and this way perhaps getting even closer to portraying reality. Both What Young Men Do and Brothers of the Night could be seen as examples of this.
Scripted dialogue. It is possible to further argue that the divide between feature film and documentary is exaggerated, and the question is not whether, but rather, to which degree, a film is staged. It is surprisingly easy to forget how much film makers manipulate the action in a documentary in general, including to those of us who are, presumably, experienced. A relatively well known example is the way Swedish documentarist Stefan Jarl instructed some of the characters in his so-called Mods-trilogy. Jarl himself explained how he scripted a drug addict’s dialogue in A Respectable Life (1979), to make him talk about working class drug abuse, though the person did not necessarily have those views. «It seems authentic, but is pure fiction, » the film maker states in Søren Birkvad and Jan Anders Diesen’s interview book Authentic Impressions (Autentiske inntrykk, 1994). Many felt that Jarl this time went too far in his creative adaptation of reality. Unlike fiction, a documentary film is, to a certain extent, contractually obliged to show an audience «truthful» or «real» content, impacted somewhat (and perhaps inevitably) by the film maker’s choices and presence.
Does not want to be deceived. This is perhaps at its most evident as it is broken, or when fiction pretends to be a documentary. One such case is Syrian Boy Hero, one of the films exemplified by Norwegian Film Institute’s retiring documentary film consultant Kristine Ann Skaret, during the BIFF conference. The (before her time there) NFI-supported Norwegian short film evoked strong reactions and international headlines when it became clear that it did not contain any authentic recordings from a war torn Syria, but fictional scenes shot in Malta – something which was omitted when the film went viral. People, in other words, do not want to feel betrayed, and the film was even accused of diminishing the clout and credibility of genuine war journalism.
It is surprisingly easy to forget how much film makers manipulate what happens in a documentary in general.
This does not, of course, mean that it is always controversial to use fictional elements in a documentary. On the contrary, reconstructions – fictional scenes which recreate actual events – are widespread and traditional tools of the trade. This seems not to impact the contractual obligation to the audience, as long as it is made clear that these are reconstructions. In other words, such scenes need to, in some way, make their artificiality known, all the while portraying something exactly as it happened. Jon Haukeland does not necessarily do this in his film What Young Men Do – without wanting to convey anything else but reality as experienced by his main character. The audiences did not react in a negatively way, quite the opposite – the film aroused some well-deserved enthusiasm.
The case of The Magnitsky Act. It seems evident that the hybrid form’s ability to provoke is related to its manipulation of something experienced as authentic. Det synes klart at hybridformens evne til å provosere henger sammen med dens manipulering av noe man opplever som autentisk. Nøyaktig hvor grensen går for hva vi aksepterer av slik manipulasjon, er dog ikke like opplagt.
In her look at recent hybrid films at the seminar, Kristine Ann Skaret also cited the notorious The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes, which received its Norwegian festival premier at BIFF. (Famously, the Grimstad Short Film pulled it from its program in June, following a threat to sue by US investor and Magntiskij-champion Bill Browder.) This film is founded on reconstructions, and was perhaps initially supposed to be something akin to a feature film. The film shows how director Andrei Nekrasov, during his work to create these reconstructions, starts to doubt the story he has been told – and is about to record – about the circumstances surrounding the death of Russian tax solicitor and whistle blower Sergei Magnitskij.
Rather than deeming it a hybrid film, I feel that The Magnitsky Act contains a Meta level – which in a way makes it exit reconstructions, instead gradually taking on the shape of a more traditional, investigative journalism documentary. The film is also fairly clear on what are reconstructions, «behind the scenes»-shots of these recordings, and which are traditional documentary sequences. But, these terms are not why Nekrasov’s film was considered so controversial. It is divisive because it undermines the established «truths» which greatly impacted the propaganda warfare between Russian and the West, and many feel that Nekrasov himself uses lies in his film. (Although you could argue that his main objective is not to conclude, but to create doubt)
However, by featuring the staging itself as a large part of the action, The Magnitsky Act becomes a film about the fact that all stories are told – also outside of the film media.
Conflicting elements. I let myself get frustrated by another film screened at the Bergen festival (and recently also at Oslo’s Film from South festival) – The Land of the Enlightened – by Belgian film maker Pieter-Jan de Pue. The film tells the story of a group of boys in the Afghani Mountains who steals opium and trades with mines and other weapons used in the war. The sequences featuring the boys seem partly fictional, and interspersed with poetic constructions of a more mythological, ancient Afghanistan, and some clearly documentary excerpts of US and Afghani soldiers. Unfortunately, this results in the fictional and documentary elements partly cancelling each other out. The film never reveals whether the young robbers represent an actual environment in that country, nor is their story engaging enough to make it work as an actual feature film. Some of the fictional elements are enthralling, but I would have liked additional and more in depth documentary scenes featuring the adult soldiers. In other words, I wished for a more traditional documentary, as I never saw the point of The Land of the Enlightened‘s hybrid format.
The hybrid film may make the audience react with an annoyed «What the fuck? », but likewise with a more resigned «so what? ». The way fictional films have long been inspired by documentaries, it is inevitable that this flirtation is reciprocated. Although this can create unnecessary confusion and rightful anger, it is clear that fictional elements enrich documentary films. Not only benefitting its aesthetic expression, but also its ability to convey something authentic.