The line between what is fiction (narrative) and reality (documentary) and the possible perceptions of each through the immediate separation of the frame have been blurred and reworked by filmmakers since the beginning of the cinema.
This concept of the viewers perception of reality and what exists inside and outside the frame is equally as imperative to the films below as their blurring of fact and imagination. To highlight this is the main objective of some films, such as Orson Welles’s F for Fake, and the unintended consequence or analysis of others, such as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, but it always serves as a puzzle for the viewer.
The melding of what the filmmaker intends as either conceived or reality is immediately made fiction by its framing within the screen and therefore the following films allow for a fascinating dive into what it means for this intentional or unintentional blend to come together on screen.
In my mind, there isn’t as much distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one. – Abbas Kiarostami
1. Araya by Margot Benacerraf (1959, Venezuela)
Named after the northern Venezuelan peninsula of its setting, Margot Benacerraf’s Araya is a one-of-a-kind documentary-fiction hybrid that Benacerraf herself labels as “a feature documentary, the opposite of Italian neorealism.”
While utilizing the real people and setting of the northern Venezuelan salt flats, Araya constructs a cinematic narrative through shots of the workers and their families as they go about their days in the mines and in a culture continually at odds with itself as they incorporate their own heritage and traditions into an existence predicated for the past four hundred years in an exploitative work force based on Western (British) benefit.
2. Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami (1990, Iran)
Abbas Kiarostami’s landmark 1990 docu-fiction hybrid retells the true story of how Hossain Sabzian successfully impersonated Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and was invited into Ahnankhah families home with hopes of making a film about them. After Sabzian was eventually discovered and arrested Kiarostami came to all the original people involved in the story and successfully proposed to make a film about the event.
What follows is one of the most interesting examinations of the perception of truth and reality within the frame as all original parties replay their designated role for the camera, essentially recreating a cinematic truth to the events.
As well, Kiarostami was able to record within the courtroom during Sabzian’s actual trial and utilizes various aesthetic techniques to heighten the cinematic presence to the viewer such as the now infamous audio cut out during the scene in which Sabzian meets Makhmalbaf for the first time.
3. Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog (1970, West Germany)
Unlike the previous films on this list, Herzog’s early feature isn’t docufiction nor does it attempt to have any basis in reality outside of its use of an entirely dwarfed cast. But what the director does by employing a cast entirely composed of people of short stature is create a comical if bombastically audacious world in which rules are expanded and flung out the door in true Herzogian fashion.
The film follows a group of dwarfs who are confined to an institution on a remote tropical island as they rebel against the guards and doctors (all dwarves as well). As their slapstick antics grow so does the realization of danger and societal shunning of dwarves elicited through the institutional setting.
4. India: Matri Bhumi by Roberto Rossellini (1957, India/Italy)
Roberto Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi is not only one of the great directors most underrated works but also an interesting blend of setting and fiction, much in a similar vein to Benacerraf’s Araya.
With a script co-written by Iranian diplomat Fereydoun Hoveyda Rossellini intertwined four tales of myth and fable about the Indian countryside and its people into a film that is wholly unpresumptuous and complex. After getting into an affair with the 27-year-old Sonali Senroy Das Gupta, who was married and had two children, both she and Rossellini had to flee the country before filming was complete, meaning the production had to be finished in various European studios.
Even with this geographical transposition the film comes to vibrant life with the stories, people, and places of India to create a unique and holistic view of a culture often misrepresented in the western gaze.
5. The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie (1961, USA)
The Exiles follows a group of young Native Americans around for one night in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles as they go about their nightly routine of partying, fighting, and living.
Transplanted from a southwest reservation, the fictional story is based on the actual actors portraying themselves and detailed interviews/accounts from themselves and others about life for transposed Native Americans in urban LA. As well, the production side of the film bursts at the seem with authentic LA talent and life.
Shot on the leftover stock of 1,000 foot reels and by a large number of local filmmakers and artists holding odd-jobs, Kent Mackenzie and his friends seemingly crafted the premiere account of Native American life not only in LA but urban settings in general and the effect of US government upending them from their land and putting them in new and vibrant settings.
6. Colossal Youth by Pedro Costa (2008, Portugal)
The third film of Pedro Costa to be based in the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, Colossal Youth follows the 75 year old Ventura as he is relocated to a new home in the wake of the slums were demolished during the Carnation Revolution. Ventura is a real life Cape Verdean immigrant who was forced to relocate after the Portuguese government demolished his home and those of many other immigrants on the outskirts of the city.
As Ventura wanders around his neighborhood visiting his neighbors, who he calls his “children”, Gravas examines an entire group displaced and struggling in hauntingly cinematic fashion that juxtaposes stark lighting and editing with the real rooms and hallways of Fontainhas slums and the people that are forced to inhabit them on a daily basis.
7. The Hour of the Furnaces by Octavio Gentino and Fernando E Solanas (1968, Argentina)
Repurposing the Third World activist cinema of Latin America into the format of an film, Gentino and Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces examines the roots of and cause for revolution in 1968 Argentina and the thwarting of colonialism.
Divided into three distinct parts, the first of which Neocolonialism and Violence is the most formally inventive and daring. Interspersing newsreel footage of life and revolution in South America with intertitles and voiceover calling for political action, the films realization of aesthetic juxtaposition and context would redefine not only activist cinema but the power of documentary footage.
As well, the filmmakers shot their own footage of life in Argentina to accompany their feature and offer up what Vincent Canby calls “a unique film exploration of a nation’s soul.”