Virtual Round Table 4: Fiction-Documentary

18 Aug, 22

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It is a fact that the medium of film has a reality of itself, like any other medium able to produce a context, and therefore a consciousness. This contradicts the categorizations which are imposed on the medium, and seems to act as a compartmentalization strategy in order to tame the medium. In many ways, this reflects the general capitalist attitude toward sciences and arts, with the dismissal of inherited knowledge or cultural significance through the process of opening markets, with a requirement for a clear division and hierarchy like that between fiction and documentary. If we look at categorization as an industrial process, in order to label, package and distribute, then we can see how the medium is subject to exploitation. Any product is a result of the processing of resources, and includes extraction, manufacturing and distribution, like the chicken egg industry, or mobile phone industry, or simply the complex industries at work behind tourism. Films too, are the result of a similar process. Filmmaking is constituted of three main stages. First is writing, which includes the observation of subjects in order to extract stories, sketching the method in a timeline, followed by the manufacturing of this imaginative into the shape of breakdown excel sheets, floor plans, lists of equipment. Then comes the production phase, consisting in capturing frames and sounds that represent something, both metaphorically and directly. This capturing process can be of a group of actors on a stage delivering a dialogue, or an image of sleepy passengers on a night train, or even just a scene of a quiet morning in a forest. These images are recorded and unified into a format unrelated to the actual physics and realities of these frames, and so they receive a new form, a new time, a resurrection, ready for distribution.
Thinking of fiction or documentary, both films captured with the same camera, as different categories, means submitting oneself to the will of the market and its conditions of demand and supply. The capitalistic logic imposes a division on the medium, and thereby limits the potential exploration of the medium. The question that should be raised is resist imposed categorizations through the market trends. This implies the question of whose eyes are looking at this. If it is through the lenses of the industry that one is looking, then the artists/ filmmakers have to compromise their artistic integrity in order to be fished out of the sea of talents. Dismantling these capitalist tendencies from within the film industry is necessary to reclaim the space(s) of creative and progressive exchange between filmmakers themselves, producers and the rest of the world.
Mohanad Yaqubi

I agree that the distinction between documentary and fiction is merely a convenience. It stems from our modern obsession with classification and compartmentalization so as to rationalize the world around us. This distinction also allows for entire capitalistic industries and structures to exist and sustain themselves. Personally, I have always attempted in my film work to trouble that distinction. In Salam (2017), for instance, I tried to give life to the words of an anonymous Syrian woman interviewed about her sexuality by as I agree that the distinction between documentary and fiction is merely a convenience. It stems from our modern obsession with classification and compartmentalization so as to rationalize the world around us. This distinction also allows for entire capitalistic industries and structures to exist and sustain themselves. Personally, I have always attempted in my film work to trouble that distinction. In Salam (2017), for instance, I tried to give life to the words of an anonymous Syrian woman interviewed about her sexuality by asking an actor, Rawya El Chab, to say and perform her exact quotes. I think the mere gesture of another woman not only repeating the Syrian woman’s words but also letting them inhabit her, exist and resonate inside her, amplified the original testimony about bodies, desire, societal power trying to control them, and resistance. I think the space between the original (or a fantasized idea of an original) and its performance is very generative for viewers because it reveals the gap between reality and its inevitable performance on camera.
Raed Rafei

Quite obviously, the distinction between fiction and documentary is not absolute; it rather points to a stylistic convention which, like all conventions, can be quoted, appropriated, used in a different context. The Dardenne brothers’ films (to a certain extent) look like documentaries, even if they are scripted. Frederick Wiseman spends months and months in the editing room to condense the material into scenes that, despite their purely documentary ingredients, have the narrative flavor that we are accustomed to encountering in fiction films. Film as record (registration), and film as language (syntax, juxtaposition, montage): both elements are always present, as Dai Vaughan reminds us. If this is the case, trust is crucial. A “documentary contract” is established each time, and it involves various (human and non-human) actors: the people behind the camera, the camera (and microphone), those in front of it, the institutional context, and, not least, us as spectators. However, since this “contract” most of the times remains implicit, the conditions that it codifies are precarious and unstable.
Volker Pantenburg

Le plus important sont sans doute des lignées (historiques, généalogiques) esthétiques et politiques dans lesquelles s’inscrivent ces films. Ces lignées politiques ou esthétiques sont transversales aux catégories (documentaire / fiction / reportage / film expérimental / etc…), et ne leur sont pas superposables. Elles ne sont ni aisées à identifier, ni étanches, car elles s’ancrent sur les projets de chaque film, sur des affinités politiques, et engagent une généalogie historique ouverte et pensante.
Marie Voignier

Se por um lado a distinção entre documentário e ficção continua a ser interessante do ponto de vista histórico, ético, e no seu modelo de produção, e exibição, a verdade é que o cinema mais interessante se encontra cada vez mais na fronteira entre ficção e não ficção. Do ponto de vista do realizador e do académico a distinção que talvez faça mais sentido é aquela que remete para formasdiferentesdeconvocaroespectador: porumladoumcinemaqueutiliza uma construção dramática em que existe uma suspensão involuntária da descrença e um cinema que envolve uma narrativa mais épica, mais reflexiva e ensaística. Se identificamos a primeira categoria mais com a ficção e a segunda com o documentário, cada vez mais são os filmes que combinam os dois tipos de construção. E esta discussão não é puramente académica nem filosófica, ela tem consequências na produção de um filme, na sua mise-en-scène na escolha de actores profissionais ou não actores, na escolha dos decor. Neste sentido, hoje em dia, a distinção entre documentário e ficção pode até ser contraproducente para quem realiza e produz um cinema mais híbrido.
Catarina Mourão

I believe that all cinema is hybrid, and that there is no “pure documentary” or “pure fiction.” Only “impure cinema.” This happens because on one hand, with the exception of animated films, photography is at the root of all films. As a consequence of this, there is an apodictic character to cinema that makes its images testify to certain events that happened in a specific place and at a specific time. A film always works as an audiovisual proof that something real happened. It is a document. But on the other hand, where there’s human intervention, there is necessarily something along the lines of fiction. Photography is fiction. Science is fiction (remember Jean Painlevé). Religion is also fiction. Language is the touchstone of fiction (remember Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlön). Film editing and framing are certainly related to the principle of fiction. With this in mind, we should stress that fiction is no less real than anything else. Like cinema, reality is made of both the actual and the virtual (see Deleuze). All documentary films are “realist documentaries made of unreal events” (Cocteau) because, in the end, all reality is symbolic and impregnated with the imaginary. In addition, every fiction film is a documentary in its own shooting. It is an essay film in the sense that it is a rhetoric construct and an object that thinks about itself.
José Bértolo

La forme essayiste a une longue tradition au cinéma, comme le rappellent les textes de Hans Richter ou d’Alexandre Astruc, d’André Bazin ou d’André S. Labarthe. Si la notion connaît actuellement une sorte de renaissance dans le domaine anglophone et ailleurs, elle risque de servir désormais comme passe- partout. Elle sert trop souvent pour classer non seulement toute hybridité ou forme expérimentale, mais aussi un certain type de discours critique, voire d’agentivité, attribué au cinéma. Si on trouve beaucoup de propositions philosophiques pour définir la fiction, les tentatives théoriques de définir le documentaire par rapport à la fiction sont souvent restées pragmatiques et liées aux pratiques de l’expérience des films. Une poétique du documentaire aurait peut-être plus de sens, car elle s’intéresserait davantage aux inventions des formes et à leur lien avec le quotidien et la vie. (Jacques Rancière parle d’une « poétique du savoir » quand il s’intéresse à la manière dont Fernand Braudel écrit de l’histoire.)
Christa Blümlinger

The division between documentary and fiction is still as relevant as always. However, their difference has little or perhaps nothing to do with their relationship to reality. As I see it, the important differences between documentary and fiction have to do with formal approaches. A film is a documentary because it looks and sounds like one. Of course, there are fictions that look like docs and vice-versa, but that happens when a filmmaker specifically choses to draw from the formal toolbox of the other side.
The difference between capturing a representation of reality, or reality itself (or something close to it), is a subject that concerns equally fiction and documentary filmmakers.
When I film a person, I’m interested in their physical attributes, in how their body moves, in how they sound when they talk, etc. In a fiction film I choreograph this movement, rehearse it to the point that it becomes second nature to the actor, at which point their movements and sounds are triggered by muscle memory. In a documentary this muscle memory doesn’t need to be generated, as it is part of the subject.
All movement is choreographed. Documentary aims to capture the movement that a subject has unconsciously learned throughout their life, while fiction aims to capture the movement that has been consciously learned and repeated over a short period of time. In both cases, a filmmaker aims to capture the essence of this choreography.
Nicolás Pereda

A diferença entre documentário e ficção não corresponde às distinções entre objetividade e subjetividade, entre acaso e manipulação ou entre realismo e expressionismo. O documentário insinua-se, antes de mais, enquanto documento, no sentido de um testemunho. Nestes termos, se o propósito for apenas a informação factual, como reclama a deontologia jornalística ou científica, então o cunho performativo tenderá a ser ignorado ou ficará tecnicamente escondido. É esta aparente isenção metodológica que alimenta a associação direta entre o discurso documental e o realismo. Um documentarismo ingénuo, portanto. Situamos aqui o fundamento do termo e da sua aplicabilidade.
Mas o documentário, enquanto tal, também pode assumir uma vocação performativa ou estética. O documentário pode ser arte e o discurso da realidade pode ser poético. Os dois propósitos – realista e performativo – não se contrariam mutuamente, até porque também pode haver realismo através da performance. Não é na fidelidade ao plano dos factos – ou seja, no realismo epistémico – que reside a força poética do discurso documental, embora esse compromisso também possa ser usado pelo cineasta para objetivos artísticos (por exemplo, no cinema híbrido, a ambiguidade desconcertante onde a realidade e a ficção se tornam indiscerníveis). Não devemos, pois, confundir a busca de uma autenticidade estética, que é comum a todo o cinema, com o compromisso epistemológico próprio do discurso documental. No seu sentido mais abrangente, o realismo e a autenticidade não se confundem com a facticidade. A autenticidade estética transcende o realismo epistémico que é marca do documentário. Este não se distingue pela sua capacidade privilegiada de captar o autêntico ou o verdadeiro, mas simplesmente pelo seu compromisso com o plano dos factos.
Contudo, este compromisso particular não se encontra de modo inequívoco na própria forma do documentário, ainda que seja possível, até por conveniência taxonómica, distinguir traços, estilos e métodos tipicamente documentais. Em última análise, o compromisso próprio do discurso documental reside apenas no objetivo tácito do documentarista (que procura manter-se fiel aos factos), bem como na predisposição das audiências (confiantes nessa facticidade). É uma demarcação fenomenológica que escapa ao formalismo cinematográfico.
Filipe Martins

A couple of thoughts and sentences to remember: Frieda Grafe, in a text with the great title “Found Fiction: Better Documentaries” speaks of the “fictional formations that run through reality like narrative threads.” Dai Vaughan states: “Film is about something, whereas reality is not.” Maybe it is best to think of documentary and fiction as two aggregate states of the moving image; two potentials that can be activated and pushed in one direction or the other. Who would deny that a Douglas Sirk melodrama, say: Written on the Wind, is also a documentary that shows a Universal studio lot in 1956, and tells us how Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson looked like at this very moment before the camera. Yet this does not prevent the film from being a wonderful fiction.
Volker Pantenburg

I agree with those who refuse to consider the distinction between fiction and document rigidly. They are not opposed, they belong to the same dialectic of narration, just as Ricoeur argues about the relationship of novel and history. Shub’s interpretation of the Russian history was as strong as if she realized a fiction. But she was aware that interpretation can be even stronger if one finds the meaning of actuality in documents. But the opposite could be also true: Rithy Panh’s documentary, The Missing Picture, reconstructs life in the camps under Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia with an original fiction device: traditional theater puppets. However, he precisely wants to show that the documents produced by the regime, which are the only documents available of the time, are fiction because they represent a fake version of history in which worker- prisoners are happy to be engaged in the effort of creating an authentic rural and communist Cambodia. In this case, the fiction in the movie unveils the fiction of the regime’s propaganda.
Dario Cecchi

Se grande parte da produção documentária mais interessante, expressiva e arriscada que se realiza hoje lida, portanto, em sua própria forma fílmica e em sua metodologia com a fricção das fronteiras entre autenticidade e encenação, experiência e performance, vida e teatro, produzindo com isso efeitos estéticos e políticos desestabilizadores, é porque o documentário, longe de ser o regime da autenticidade, da verdade, da fidedignidade e da pureza documental, como acreditam os mais ingênuos, dogmáticos ou puristas, tem sido, desde sua origem, um espelho partido do mundo, no sentido de que a imagem que ele revela é sempre distinta, rasurada, fissurada. O documentário seria assim, desde sempre, um teatro vazado pelo real. O próprio documentarista brasileiro Eduardo Coutinho reconhece, após a realização de seu original e desestabilizador Jogo de cena (2007), que “o teatro é o próprio lugar de tudo”, o lugar em que todos os filmes estão e no qual a fala constitui um espaço de permanente encenação e auto-estilização. Sendo assim, se a verdade é então sempre construída (o que não significa dizer, evidentemente, que ela seja falsificada, manipulada ou deturpada) pela relação entre quem filma e quem é filmado, isto é, pelo encontro entre os modos de produção da imagem e os meios de construção da realidade, é porque, precisa-se ressaltar, o documentário é uma prática relacional profundamente ética, onde não há verdades prévias.
Prática ética desprovida de uma ontologia enquanto gênero específico, o documentário, portanto, só existe na condição de uma fronteira instável que, para permanecer como fronteira, precisa ser sempre atravessada – e ele será tão mais potente quando sua construção der forma à fabulação, desejos e memória de uma coletividade, quando sua construção der forma às forças sociais e subjetivas que o produz.
Ilana Feldman

The productive frisson between fiction and documentary has been explored with increasing regularity and sophistication in recent decades, whether from many works by Werner Herzog and the late Agnès Varda or experiments by the likes of Casey Affleck, Sarah Polley, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Rithy Panh. Though topically diverse, these directors show a penchant for Wellesian provocation— consider Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973) as a handy touchstone. In each case, we are given an opportunity to decode and delineate the seen from the unseen, the truth from the lie, the unrepeatable present (caught on film) from the staging or re-staging of an event that never was. Essay films yield another genre that illuminates our epistemological (and dare I say, moral) predicament. Despite, or perhaps because of, a wonderful set of extended remarks on the essay film— recent volumes by Timothy Corrigan, Nora Alter, Laura Rascaroli, Elizabeth Papazian, and Caroline Eages come immediately to mind—we may recall that Phillip Lopate made an attempt at securing criteria for the essay film, now back some thirty years ago (after all he was in search of the centaur). While debating “What counts?” remains a useful exercise, the persistence of the question motivates much compelling reflection on the nature of medium and its various form/content assemblages. Returning us to our inherited sense of form and content—indeed, per Adorno, which is which? As theorized by Corrigan, et al., and the contributors to their volumes, the essay film involves a perpetual negotiation between what is “captured” and how it is presented. With Adorno surfacing earlier, we could turn profitably to his “The Essay as Form,” its title announcing the essay’s very shape as a candidate for “sedimented content.” Thus “capture” and “edit” are necessarily forms of production.
David LaRocca