15 Great Films That Blur The Line Between Fiction and Reality

8. In the Land of the Headhunters by Edward S Curtis (1914, Canada)

In the Land of the Headhunters

Edward S Curtis was an American Civil War veteran who spent 1911-1914 living with Kwakwaka’wakw people in British Columbia photographing and filming them. Curtis decided to create a film detailing the daily lives, rituals, and culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw people that would form one of the first ever feature length motion pictures.

Years of preparation went into making the film in part both from Curtis and the local inhabitants to make costumes, dwellings, canoes, and any other facet of the life they needed to fully represent their culture on screen. What is contained in In the Land of the Headhunters is a cinematic retelling of an authentic Native American lifestyle created by those very people for the camera.


9. F for Fake by Orson Welles (1973, France/Iran)

Orson Welles ~ F for Fake, 1973

Orson Welles’s slight-of-hand about the perception of truth both on screen and in real life seamlessly meshes together stories of famous painting forger Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving (who wrote a “biography” on Elmyr) with recounted stories of his partner Oja Kodar and Pablo Picasso among many other tangents and tricks.

The film brings itself fully into question as an aesthetic piece of work along with its subjects and forces the viewer to create their own interpretation of true and false events, along with the perceived settings and characters. A true enigma, F for Fake serves as the antithesis to most of the docufiction films on this list as it intentionally tries to separate the real from the fictional rather than using both to merge art and reality.


10. Mondo Cane by Paolo Cavara (1962, Italy)

Mondo Cane

The Italian film that spawned an entire genre in the 60’s and 70’s, Mondo Cane was created as a travelogue film incorporating shocking and exotic images and customs from around the world with the intent to surprise and disconcert Western audiences.

The filmmakers: Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti, incorporated previously recorded footage with their own to seamlessly intersperse real events and traditions with false ones in order to create more content and buffer the film in a (hopefully) seamlessly realistic fashion.

The films content and structure were so successful that it spawned countless remakes. The vignette style of story telling kept audiences engrossed in micro stories and wanting more out of each passing scene. The use of false and enhanced footage only added to the appeal as deciphering between the real and the fake became a unique take on the genre itself.


11. The Naked Island by Kaneto Shindo (1960, Japan)

The Naked Island

Same as Even Dwarfs Started Small, The Naked Island has no pretense of docufiction. Rather, it is a fictional film made with four actors and a studio crew but what makes the film unique is its adherence to the true and uninhibited setting.

The film follows a family of four who live on a small island in the Sento Inland Sea as they go about their daily lives trying to irrigate their crops. Without the use of dialogue, the film follows these actors as they inhabit this very real and cumbersome island and the struggles of agricultural existence.

The films location and lack of dialogue highlight the stark contrasts between urban and rural life in postwar Japan as well as the direction in which its national cinema was heading.


12. Oxhide by Jiayin Liu (2005, China)


Jiayin Liu’s 2005 feature Oxhide and her 2009 follow-up Oxhide II revolutionized the portrayal of working class Chinese life and culture on screen. Taking place over 23 static shots entirely within Jiayin’s families own extremely cramped Beijing apartment, Oxhide examines the setbacks and possibilities in an increasingly crowded country.

The setting of the film is as monumental as the aesthetic approach; only 50 square feet, the family live in extremely close and confined quarters, even sleeping together in a single bed. The father is salesman slowsly going broke and the family is attempting to find ways of raising money. The microcosmic view of one families struggles takes on epic proportions that transcend documentary and elicit emotions and realizations of the story of a nation.


13. Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty (1922, Canada)

Nanook of the North

One of the most infamous “docufiction” films of all time, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North follows the journey of the title character and his family. People of the Inuk tribe, they live in the Canadian arctic circle and hunt mainly the walrus to survive. Often considered one of the first landmark documentaries, Flaherty has been accused of staging certain sequences and settings, most notably an igloo the family inhabits, for cinematic effect.

As well, “Nanook” was not actually the name of the central figure nor was the woman in the film his actual wife. Flaherty encompassed real people, events, culture, and (sometimes) places but created what he viewed as a more accessible backdrop for American viewers. While these techniques ultimately create a less authentic aesthetic, essentially inhibiting it from being a true documentary, it is commonly perceived that the overall scope and effect of the film is of substantial merit.


14. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1967, USA)

Portrait of Jason

Shot over the course of one night in the apartment of Aaron Payne aka Jason Holliday by Shirley Clarke and her partner Carl Lee, Jason is the only person seen on screen throughout the films 105 minute running time. The viewer watches as Jason parades around his living room continually drinking scotch, smoking cigarettes, and getting high retelling stories from his youth as a southern house boy to his party lifestyle and attempt to get into the showbiz as a cabaret dancer.

Portrait of Jason is a film of falsity, Clarke and Lee want the viewer to question everything Jason is saying for it could all be false, a masquerade for the camera to heighten his own perception of himself. They grow increasingly hostile in their questioning as the night goes on and continuously view him in and out of focus with a series of fade-ins and outs that distort the viewers visual as well as audial perception of Jason.


15. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves (1968, USA)

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm doc

A complex documentary/fictional/experimental film, William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is an attempt at pure reality, something largely different than the often mentioned pure cinema. Greaves’s attempt was to create a large number of overlaying stories and crews to the point where the camera became irrelevant and the actions on screen became completely separated and unhindered from said camera.

The film itself is a documentary inside a documentary inside a documentary that takes place in New York’s Central Park and revolves around Greaves himself directing a group of actors from The Actors Studio. Greaves brings three separate documentary crews in to record the production with each crew inherently building upon the meta-textual basis laid by the former group.

As well, he sometimes splits the screen into two or all three perspectives in order to create a visual perception of reality that is possible at any point even though the perceptions themselves are all staged due to the nature of them building off one another.

Author Bio: Ian Cahoon is a Film Studies student at Towson University who is actively involved in the Baltimore film community. He sometimes updates his blog http://ianlcahoon.wordpress.com but wishes to start updating it more.