This post originally appeared on March 26, 2013.
I spent last weekend watching documentaries. This may not sound at first hearing like the most exciting weekend a person could have, but every year at this time I spend all of my money and time to go see more documentary films than a person should see in four days at True/False, a documentary film festival in its tenth year that is a highlight of the year for me and my little town. Directors and producers and writers and fans descend on the city and turn it into temporary mecca for (mostly) nonfiction narrative cinema (and for hoodies, which for some reason go with documentaries like Botox goes with Hollywood), and normal residents like me get to forget our day jobs and immerse ourselves in a vibrant and inventive art form.
Emerging bleary-eyed and wrung out (maybe that explains the hoodies) on the other end of my sixteen-film weekend, I’ve been thinking about documentaries, especially in light of what I do, which is study and teach fiction. This isn’t so paradoxical—nonfictional and fictional narrative share more than most people think, and have a lot to teach us about each other.
The most important thing they share, of course, is that they’re narrative. While I am more in the theory of the novel camp than the narrative theory camp because the latter looks for the keys to all narrative while the former keeps its eye on genre, it is important to recognize the specific shared goals and forms of nonfictional and fictional films and prose. In plainer words, it is correct to say that one genre is true and the other is false, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t both used to tell stories (and that both are not both true and false). Through these genres, writers and filmmakers tell stories with certain effects in mind, using a toolbox of techniques to achieve those effects.
One film I saw, Dirty Wars, follows reporter Jeremy Scahill’s investigation of covert military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The structure of the film is dictated by Scahill’s activity—the filmmakers follow the trail of the reporter’s story, watching over his shoulder as he tracks the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command through small villages and along the banks of the Potomac. As they do so, they mix genres, using the tricks of straightforward investigative journalism alongside those of the diary, the personal essay, and the travelogue, taking advantage of the power of identification to tell a haunting story and make a strong argument.
The Act of Killing, my favorite of the weekend, looks back at Indonesian death squads active after the 1965 military coup. It is a strange and powerful film (the presence on the Executive Producers roster of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two masters of strange and powerful films, is unsurprising in this regard) in which former members of one such squad proudly recreate scenes of torture and murder from the past. These scenes become part of the film, are presented as they are made, and are accompanied by interviews of the players. The filmmakers follow the squad members as they confront (and fail to confront) their memories, and show the reactions of the rest of the nation—the victims and those who still celebrate the nominally anti-communist purge. It is an incredibly inventive and even (to use an overused word) surreal film, one that rides the line between nonfiction and fiction in the service of an unfortunately true story. It is an excellent example of the ways in which narratives can bend themselves to accommodate experiences so traumatic that straightforward storytelling forms seem unable to capture.
On a lighter note (these documentary festivals can be murder), I saw a film, Village at the End of the World, that visits a tiny fishing village in Greenland as it faces change. It is not formally radical, nor does anyone but some fish and a polar bear die in it. However, in the way it takes viewers to a remote, foreign, frozen place— accessible only by helicopter and storytelling— it is a model for what narrative can do. Telling the story of the village as it deals with historical change and the individual stories of a few of its residents, including that of a teenage boy as he figures out and steps into his future, the documentarians invoke old generic standbys such as the wilderness story and the bildungsroman to make viewers experience a way of life that is very different from their own.
I am unsure just how all this will translate into the classroom. I want to help students studying fiction to better see how fiction works by looking at its techniques at work in nonfiction (and to see nonfiction’s techniques at work in it). And I want them to think about the shared goals of fiction and nonfiction—to move an audience, to make people think, to show them something about the world. That may mean bringing some examples into class, or assigning these films as they reach wider distribution (if they do). I welcome suggestions. It just seems that the examples of what narrative can do are so powerful and plentiful in documentary film that it would be a shame if I can’t use them somehow.