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20 Great Documentaries That Blur The Lines Between Reality And Fiction

16 April 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Matthew Carter

documentary fiction reality

There are so many film lists that chastise documentaries that distort the so called “truth”and dismiss certain journalistic etiquettes. From “Top 10 documentaries that lied to you”, to “6 Famous Documentaries That Were Shockingly Full of Crap”; documentary filmmakers can expect a cinematic vasectomy if they even remotely alter a ‘real event’.

German filmmaker Werner Herzog famously presented his ‘ecstatic truth’,a concept which hits back against the belief that documentary is not entitled to a creative licence.

Herzog said“If you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate. I do not know what they dream about at night. Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night? We do not know anything when we check all the correct entries. I’m not this kind of a filmmaker”.

This list celebrates documentaries that cared more about their cinematic ambitions, than their alleged journalistic obligations.

 

1. Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)

Nanook of the North

The film observes the life of an Inuit from the Canadian Artic called Nanook and actively blurs the lines between drama and observational reality. Nevertheless, it’s only in retrospect that we consider Nanook of the North to be a docudrama, at the time the definition of documentary was still in its infancy.

The film’s director Robert J. Flaherty once famously said “Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”

As controversial and counter intuitive as this statement may seem, it was a bedrock ideology that the likes of Werner Herzog and Abbas Kiarostami would develop further. The idea that it doesn’t matter how much a scene is staged, as long as it’s done with a sense of sincerity, it will almost always capture the true essence of it.

Nanook of the north is to this day used in film studies classrooms all over the world, as a way of getting students to argue over what it truly means to be a “real documentary”.

 

2. Man with a Movie Camera (DzigaVertov,1929)

Man with a Movie Camera

Hailed by filmmakers and critics alike as one of the most important documentaries ever made, if not, one of most important films in any genre.

There is no story, narrative or conventional protagonist. It simply depicts a cameraman attempting to film the life of a Russian city within a twenty-four period and does so in such a way that it could be argued as an early stab at film modernism.

It’s very much an experiment, an attempt to discover a pure and authentic language that is exclusive to film. It aimed to depict the world visually rejecting techniques like;intertitles, story and theatrics. Like Robert Bresson attempted decades later,Vertov wanted to separate the cinema from all other art forms, by snubbing off techniques used in theatre and literature.

 

3. 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2008)

24 City

Directed by mainland Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke and like most directors mentioned in this list, even his traditional narrative films are prone to documentary like observational naturalism. Another common theme in his work is the correlation between people and their environment. More specifically, culturally desolate youths living in a rapidly changing China.

Typical of Jia, 24 City uses a location as its foundation, in this case a factory in Chengdu that is about to be demolished and replaced with modern apartments. The film shows the gradual dismantling of the old factory;this is intercut with stories told by previous workers from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Some of the testimonials are told by real people and some by actors. In spite of this,the storytellers collectively depicta whole community in a beautifully recollected fashion. 24 City resembles the feeling a person gets when they attempt to reminisce,but they’re not quite sure which bits were from memory and which were dreams.

This film is more of a poem than it is a piece of journalism. It manages to humanise a topic that would usually be suffocated with politically laced stats and figures.

 

4. Oxhide 1 and 2 (Liu Jiayin, 2005 and 2009)

Oxhide

Oxhide and its sequel Oxhide 2 could be considered as two of the most important Chinese films of the last ten years. Director Liu Jiayin uses her actual family (and her herself) to construct a narrative that depicts the working class lifestyle in contemporary China.

The film relies heavily on static one shot scenes, the entire 110 minute duration is made up of only 23 shots. It also uses a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, which if you’re not familiar with, is incredibly wide.

Usually when film-makers utilise this wide aspect ratio it is to capture open spaces and landscapes. Liu Jiayin on the other hand uses it to observe intimate close ups of what many would consider to be mundane domestic chores (cooking dumplings and sewing). Initially it appears to be a paradoxical use of such a wide frame, but it soon becomes apparent that it’s intended to work almost like a magnifying glass, where moments that would usually be overlooked are blown up and amplified.

The films highlight how valuable the family’s little domestic rituals are, both culturally and emotionally. Both films demonstrate that deep within our everyday lives are hidden signals, which say more about us and our emotional state than we realise.

 

5. The Act of Killing (Christine Cynn & Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)

the_act_of_killing

A smash hit in the festival circuit and in 2014 it went on to win a BAFTA for best documentary.

The film is principally based on a challenge,where former Indonesian death-squad leaders are asked to re-enact their mass-killings in their choice of cinematic genres. The genres range from classical gangster scenarios, to extravagant musicals.

The act of killing immerses itself into the genres each person has chosen;drifting from the conventional documentary arrangement, to a surreal nightmarish exploration.

It forced the contributors to reflect on their actions in a way they had never before, and revaluate the moral consequences that were initially ignored. As the film goes on each person experiences the massacres they committed from a new perspective anda sense of empathy begins to manifest for the first time.

By breaking the journalistic conventions of documentary and allowing a more idiosyncratic input from the contributors,the film digs deep into the complexity of the human condition and the nature of compassion.

 

6. The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1993)

The Puppetmaster

I’m sure legions of Hou Hsiao-Hsien fans are going to attack me for referring to this masterpiece as a ‘Documentary’, especially since many consider it to be one of the greatest Taiwanese narrative films of all time.

However, my assertion that The Puppetmaster is a documentary is based on the fact that it is essentially a prolonged reconstruction film. The whole movie is based on episodic narrative reconstructions of the protagonist’s (Li Tian-lu) fascinating life story. Each episode runs parallel to a real life interview with Li Tian-lu himself, as he reflects on his life in Taiwan during the WWII Japanese occupation.

Li was one of Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteers and grew up during a time when the Japanese occupation caused cultural tension with the Taiwanese people.

 

 

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  • daniel mcguire

    It would be great if articles like this would include links to where the films can be seen online.

  • Great list. A Man Vanishes would be a good addition.

  • Carrot Glace

    “After Life presents itself as a documentary” That’s the worst statement I ever read, are you kidding me?

    • Jake Finch

      The only way a statement like that would seem like “the worst statement ever” is if the person making it has no idea about Koreeda’s earlier documentaries, Peter Watkins or even the early British Mass Observation films. Of course After Life presents itself like a documentary, maybe not the documentaries you have seen though, Educate yourself before you make a fool out of yourself.

      • Carrot Glace

        No, it presents itself as fiction because that is precisely what it is, unless there’s a way to document afterlife, a state which existence we can’t even prove.
        Now I feel I making a fool of myself, explaining the obvious to you.

        • Jake Finch

          It’s structued almost exactly the same as a few Watkins docu-dramas or even one of Koreeda’s early pseudo-docs. It even mixes REAL LIFE INTERVIEWS from REAL LIFE PEOPLE into the interview sections of the film’s format. Which presents the idea that a meta-documentary is being produced from within the film. Also im sure the person who wrote this list mentioned the importance meta-fiction plays in most documentary dramas.

          • Carrot Glace

            Oh, I see… So, some ad-lib (although some scripted) dialogue by non-professional actors means you are making a documentary. Ridiculous!

          • Jake Finch

            You have straw-manned my point. Some of the interviews ARE OF REAL PEOPLE, that has nothing to do with the ad-lib or non-professional actors.

            Even if it was, by those standards ‘Nanook of the north’, ‘Fires were started’, ‘The war game’, ‘Punishment park, ‘Silent village’ etc. are not considered documentary? You must be completely ignorant to the history of the genre to think that!

          • Carrot Glace

            I’m not going to argue with you anymore.

            Even the post author concede that his argument is very shallow, and you only shouted and stated that I am an ignorant of many things, and in a very rude way, even though I wasn’t attacking you. Like hell if I know why.

    • Matthew E Carter

      Although
      “worst statement I ever read” is certainly a gross exaggeration, I do
      agree that claiming ‘After Life’ is presented as a documentary (or at least a
      conventional one) was the wrong choice of words. Like many docudramas’ ‘After Life’
      is presented in a narrative format, however, it uses many documentary
      conventions/techniques. As Jake said, it uses real interviews from real people,
      taken from the video research Koreeda made before he shot the film. Going by the
      history of the docudrama, ‘After Life’ certainly blurs the lines between actuality
      and fiction (let’s not forget, that’s what this list is about), and is a
      genuine docudrama. If Jennings’s ‘Fires were started’ can be considered
      docudrama, then so can ‘After Life’ (if anything, ‘After Life’ should be considered
      more because it uses real interview footage).

      • Carrot Glace

        1. Footage of living people remembering their lifes and used to create a fiction of afterlife is not that different of what Woody Allen did in Zelig: It has interview footage of real authoritative and famous people talking about a fictional man with a peculiar fictional condition.

        And that don’t make Zelig a documentary, although it has a by-the-book documentary format, and After Life has not, by the way.

        2. “actuality and fiction” is a poor word choice: the actuality of afterlife is debatable, if not plainly dejected.

        • Jake Finch

          1. Zelig used actors/non-actors in interviews (scripted) to convey a story Woody Allen wrote. That is very different to using interviews of real people reflecting on “if they died, what memory would they want to re-live for eternity?”

          And yes, you could argue that there are meta-documentary characteristics in Zelig (this is an old debate by the way, you are 30 years too late).

          Even though Zelig is closer to This is Spinal Tap and After Life is more like The War Games. One is a parody of the conventions of the Documentary, the other is playing with the conventions to form a new insight.

          2. Actuality = Actual interviews of actual people talking about actual memories they would want to re-live for ever”

          Fiction = The story to which the interviews were applied to form a narrative.

          Other than replacing actuality with “real interviews”, there’s nothing wrong with that wording.

        • Matthew E Carter

          ‘Zelig’ is a bad example. The whole of ‘Zelig’ was scripted or at least based on Allen’s written material and the film is a spoof, not a
          meta-fictional exploration, like something you would find from Watkins, Kiarostami
          or Koreeda.

          A better comparison maybe Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Talking Heads’, where real interviews of people talking about real things is fused with
          non-actors talking about contrived things.

          A person’s personal testimonies about their actual memories, is certainly not the same as people ad-libbing from a script (Even though like ‘Talking Heads’, ‘After Life’ does that as well as the real interviews).

          By actuality (both yourself and Jake misunderstood what I meant by it) I wasn’t referring to the traditional documentary context, the narrative
          sequences in ‘After Life’ were entirely fictional. By actuality I was denoting the actual interviews of people talking about their real-life memoires.

          Unlike ‘Zelig’, ‘After Life’ is a fusion of real people talking about real things and fictional interviews/narrative sequences.

          Regarding the fictional world ‘After Life’ is set in (Which I think I mentioned clearly in the article) I agree with Jake, it is more like
          Watkin’s ‘The War game’ than it is ‘Zelig’.

          I knew choosing a film like ‘After Life’ would be debatable, but I think that’s a good thing.

          • Carrot Glace

            Look, both of you are going far away from the origin of this unfruitful debate.

            But let me digress briefly, I will make my point very quickly: Nanook is a fictional narration but it was presented as a semblance of facts. Zelig is the same, the difference is that Nanook’s semblance is trustworthy, and Zelig isn’t. After Life is a fictional narration presented as a semblance of fantastic events, where no semblance of fact is trustworthy in any possible way.

            I quoted you: “After Life presents itself as a documentary” and I insist: that statement is utterly ridiculous, because it is fictional narration and is presented as fiction (and a frigging fantasy to it), so it don’t belong to this list in any possible way and that’s damn all!

          • Jake Finch

            I’m sorry but that is pure semantics, “semblance of facts is trust worthy”? Who decides on how trust worthy it is? That statement is subjective syntax nonsense.

            And just to add, it is you who has alluded the original point, “is After Life a documentary that blurs the lines between fact and fiction?”

            Your argument has no substance until you respond to my original point. If After Life is not a documentary because of its narrative structure and fantasy settings, then does that mean The war games isn’t too?

          • Carrot Glace

            I’m sorry but I already told you: I’m not arguing with you anymore.

          • Matthew E Carter

            I agree that “presented as a documentary”
            may have been a misleading phrase to use, mainly because most people would be
            unfamiliar with the various alternative formats of the documentary genre.

            But this begs the question, if a filmmaker willingly
            shows footage of real interviews, of real people, talking about real things,
            could this not be seen as presenting the film with documentary attires?

            Whenever you show ‘actual’ footage of something in a film, you are innately presenting it with the idea that an audience will view it differently to a more cohesive fiction.

            ‘Zelig’ doesn’t count because its intentions were in
            light of parody and the interviews were not actuality, but contrived for
            comedic purposes. The audience sees it as a joke, more than an emergence of reality and fiction.

            What I will say is this. It would depend on how you view the documentary as a medium, do you see it as an ideology or simply as a genre?

            If you see it as an ideology then you may have difficulty with people like Jennings, Watkins or even ‘After Life’ being considered documentary.

            If you see it as simply a genre, then all a film needs to do is utilise certain conventions that are attributed to that genre to be considered part of it.

            ‘After Life’, like the work of Watkins and Jennings,
            uses documentary techniques that blur the lines between actual footage and narrative footage.

            Despite having a narrative/fictitious back drop, if
            there is a fusion of actual footage and contrived footage, then there is room to consider it documentary.

            May I ask for curiously sake, do you think Humphrey Jennings’s ‘Fires were started’ is a documentary?

          • Carrot Glace

            “mainly because most people would be unfamiliar with the various alternative formats of the documentary genre”

            <– This is very revealing: I'm part of "most people" in this case because it's not the field I'm most familiar with. I'm rather familiar with Japanese cinema, specially, I'm following Koreeda material I can grab, and 'After Life' was the first film of him I watched. As in the case of 'Nobody Knows' I watched 'After Life' as fiction, in the later because it's a fantasy film and the prior because, although based on facts, it was obviously fictionalized.

            "if a filmmaker willingly shows footage of real interviews, of real people, talking about real things,
            could this not be seen as presenting the film with documentary attires? // Whenever you show 'actual' footage of something in a film, you are innately presenting it with the idea that an audience will view it differently to a more cohesive fiction."

            <– I did not know that that footage was real interviews (some of them, at least acording to wikipedia), maybe that's the core of the argument.

            "‘Zelig’ doesn’t count because its intentions were in light of parody and the interviews were not actuality, but contrived for comedic purposes. The audience sees it as a joke, more than an emergence of reality and fiction."

            <– I don't agree with that, you already told "you are innately presenting it with the idea that an audience will view it differently to a more cohesive fiction", and those authoritative interviews have a second reading: why do those people would agree to appear as themselves in this film? I think that they were persuaded of the importance of the message, or at least the validity of Allen's question about violence, minorities and identity.

            "What I will say is this. It would depend on how you view the documentary as a medium, do you see it as an ideology or simply as a genre?"

            <– I didn't get it, but maybe I can say neither of them. 'Roger and Me' is both documentary and comedy, and its confrontational stages appeals to Moore purpose.

            "If you see it as an ideology then you may have difficulty with people like Jennings, Watkins or even 'After Life' being considered documentary."

            <– From what I readed, I don't have any difficulty with those filmmakers movies NOT being considered documentaries.

            I don't think documentary films are superior to fiction (or inferior). Both of them are segmentations of discourse, and both appeal to sensitivity in different ways. But I'm more critic to documentary because its discourse try to simulate fact more directly. I watched "American: The Bill Hicks Story" a very good documentary made mostly with interviews, brief live footage photographies and animation. The animation made me think: "this is very honest from the filmakers", because it break the illusion of factuality.

            Sadly, I didn't watched "Fires were started", but from what I read: No, definitely it isn't a documentary; it's a fictional reconstruction. It didn't invalid its worth at all, but my position is this: the relationship between documentary and fiction is somehow near to historical biography and novelized biobraphy. The accurate of your arguments against the aesthetics of your narration.

          • Mitty

            Whether the interviews are real or not, they are interviews! Meaning, a characteristic of the documentary genre has been used, so by definition it is to some extent, presenting itself as a documentary.

          • Mitty

            “Nanook’s semblance is trustworthy”

            That sentence is logically and contextually circular unless you can define what constitutes as a trustworthy semblance. Or at least how one can practically and objectively differentiate between a trustworthy or non-trustworthy source.

            I agree with the author, documentary is a genre not an actuality baring ideology.

            Most people would assume Pedro Costa movies are more contextually trustworthy than Herzog documentaries, but Herzog’s documentaries are called documentaries and Costa’s are called narrative. It’s all about the themes and conventions of the genre that define it, not trustworthy semblances.

        • Matthew E Carter

          Apoligies for the delayed response. Your points are totally valid, but I feel they are far too subjective (so is the idea of what constitutes a documentary) to warrent the confidence you’re projecting into your conclusion.

          The best way to sum my argument up was put really well by Kirarostami.

          “All documentaries are fictional, they just use techniques that feel very real to people. The cinema is not a truth-bearing medium in the sense of representing what is actual, it’s a poetic medium, or sometimes a storytelling one” – Abbas Kiarostami

          • Peter

            That is a fantastic Kiarostami quote. I agree, documentary is a genre, not a mode of depicting actual reality. Like all genres, it is defined by it’s themes and conventions, not how much it’s in-line with “reality”.

    • Miren Schlussel

      I think “presents itself a pseudo-docudrama” is more accurate. Yeah, a little bit like “Fires were started” set in a fictional world. I’ve not seen “The war game” so I can’t comment.

      • Carrot Glace

        But first you have to know that those interviews are real, something the film itself didn’t indicate. That’s why this film is entirely fictional.

        I have a real issue with that term: “docu-drama”. I don’t buy it at all.

    • Jake Finch

      1. Purpose of this list = films that blur the lines between reality and fiction

      2. Real interviews + ab-libbed/scripted interviews + narrative plot = After Life

      3. Film that blurs reality and fiction = After Life

      Conclusion – After Life is relevant to this list

      *side note* Koreeda in both his interviews with Tony Rayns and the special features of the Japanese release of After Life. He stated that he interviewed a hundred people and asked them “what memory they would take with then to an after life” and used several of them in the film.

      Just because the audience are not aware of this as they watch it, doesn’t change the fact it’s true.

      Nanook of the north never tells the audience that most of it is fictional, but that doesn’t change the fact it is mostly pure fiction.

      I think you’re holding onto your dead point a little too desperately now.

      • Carrot Glace

        I’m trying so hard not to descent to your level of impoliteness. Who are you? Why do you need so bad to convince me? Go do something else, stop bothering me.

        I already told you: I will respond to everybody else except you in this matter. I am not discussing anything at all with you.

  • Harsh Vardhan

    Brilliant list. Learnt so much.Much appreciated. I just have two other recommendations – A man vanishes and Stories we tell

  • vini marcon

    Great list for sure. I recommend this one. A very poetic/drama documetary about a brazilian young actress that goes to NY to study cinema. There are english subtitles! Enjoy! http://megafilmeshd.net/elena/

  • Daria Leanne

    The documentaries of Ulrick Seidl would fit pretty well in this category too – not that they are very fictionalized, but his underlying philosophy is similar to Herzog’s. The work is first and foremost *art* that is meant to evoke a reaction in the viewer, not to relate straightforward facts.

  • My: propositions:
    Encounters at the end of the world
    Crumb
    Jodorowsky’s Dune
    all three are mindblowing and worth your time

  • Relf

    Man with a movie camera was incredible