Fiction films can sometimes be misled as documentaries. It can be the way the film is presented, such as a mockumentary, or scenes composed of actual interviews. Sometimes it’s the director’s aesthetic in telling the story, or the actors are so real that it’s like the old saying: the camera was a fly on the wall witnessing all of the action.
Anyway, here are ten fictions films shot like a documentary.
1. The Passion of Anna (1969) – Ingmar Bergman
This was the era where Bergman continually kept changing his game and experimenting in new forms. Here, he has his regular actors of Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Erland Josephson as we examine a recently divorced man meeting a lonely widow as they embark on a love affair. What makes this unique is that Bergman intercuts the film with actual interviews of the four actors discussing their characters.
Bergman developed a toss-and-pull effect within the characters and the audience because every time we reach a new climax, we cut to real footage of the actors themselves. It might be confusing at first to follow, and we can wonder if Bergman was doing an experiment (essentially he is) of cinema. As one views the film more and more, it almost feels as if the actors are performing for themselves and Bergman, and no one else. Therefore furthering the effect of a documentary.
Lastly, the film is truly powerful in its long, verbal monologues of breathtaking honesty and raw human emotion. No matter how ugly or hurtful these characters have been or are going through, the interview segments enhance this Bergman gem.
2. Husbands and Wives (1992) – Woody Allen
A one two punch with the following year’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” where Allen, along with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, shot a completely handheld film. Allen also includes interviews with the characters as if they were in a relationship documentary or television special. It really feels we watching real New Yorkers struggle with their love lives.
But why, after nearly three decades of portraying New York characters in relationship highs and lows with controlled camerawork, did he want handheld for this film? Allen’s characters and stories are smart, witty, clever, and of course, searching for happiness in New York, but there’s a certain edge due the style of choice.
As the viewer, we feel a little more uncomfortable about what’s going to come of these characters and the choices they made. It’s a bit darker in setting and tone. Sure, we get the comedy and truthfulness, but it’s a bit more painful this time around and scarily poignant.
Allen states toward the end of the film, “My sixth sense says you were unstable but on the surface you were, but now since we’re having all kinds of problems you, you’re not stable on the surface but not really this whole thing is becoming very clear to me.” Only Woody Allen could sum it up perfectly that way and that’s maybe why he created his film this way.
3. 3 Faces (2018) – Jafar Panahi
A continuation of Panahi’s defiance and persistence to continue making films despite legally not being able to do so in his native Iran. Panahi literally documents three actresses at various stages of their careers alongside Behnaz Jafari as they travel to the countryside to search for a possible deceased girl.
The film opens with iPhone footage of a girl apparently dying or in serious trouble. From the start, it has a feeling that what we are about to see might actually be true. And especially with Panahi in front of and behind the camera, we never know what to expect with his current situation.
The story is quite brilliant as it unfolds as a dramatic mystery thriller with real-life performances, such as a young angry, bitter man snapping at a fellow villager. Or as Panahi allows the camera to linger on the back of his head at night waiting for something to happen. It perfectly captures unexpected moments with specificity.
Panahi continually gets better and better with his creativity and inventiveness, but here it’s taking on a whole new level of fictional films disguised as documentaries.
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
A film that is considered one of the most successful independent films, horror films, found-footage films, and the list goes on with this one. Shot with a camcorder with improvised dialogue, we see three college students getting lost in the woods on a trip that turns out to be way more than they could have imagined.
Since its premiere, it was marketed as a documentary, and the actors were even ‘unknown’ or ‘missing’ which only added to the hype and confusion. Aside from the story behind the film, the actual film itself works in this style. It shows the three actors as real people dropping plenty of F-bombs and actually getting the wits scared out of them. Its inventiveness was new for the time, and therefore a new way of fictional storytelling.
Almost everything about this sleeper hit portrays the actual fictional and created film as a documentary composed of found footage from a camcorder. Isn’t that what documentaries try to do? Get real life on camera. And here they did, but it was completely fictional, no matter how terrifying.
5. District 9 (2009) – Neil Blomkamp
One doesn’t usually associate science fiction with documentary with interviews, found footage, and handheld camera. Maybe that why Blomkamp’s metaphor for apartheid in an alternated future worked so well.
As the film unfolds with crazy weaponry, aliens, and a terrific performance from Sharlto Copley, we get a real life sense of a documentary in the future. It’s never been done in this context, and to make a thrilling chase adventure out of the gentrified lo-fi piece, it is a film that deserves to be held up in our own future. Blomkamp bringing the camera down into the slums of Johannesburg for a visceral feel, using footage to show what has occurred, and capturing interviews of Cooper’s Wikus van de Merwe is what makes it a great film.
Lastly, despite being science fiction and an allegory, it still is like watching a documentary from an alternate Johannesburg, which proves yet again, a completely made up story and film can feel like a documentary no matter what.