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.
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