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Negotiating the slippery slope of nonfiction

August 05, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

BEFORE Michael Moore, before reality TV, documentary was a high-minded genre that aimed to educate, not entertain.

But today, when a quiet little film about Antarctic birds can pull in more than $125 million worldwide, documentaries have proven they can appeal to the masses, competing for box-office dollars right alongside Hollywood blockbusters. Entering that arena creates a new dilemma for ambitious documentary filmmakers. On the one hand, they want a theatrical release, because that's the tried-and-true path to a broad audience and a high-profile career. On the other, if they stray too far from real life, they risk losing the social and cultural caché of a documentary. A feature film telling the same story just doesn't pack the same wallop.

That's led to the rise of hybrid films that regard documentary as an art form that sculpts the facts and isn't bound by them. Cleverly scripted and staged scenes are used to amp up plots. Actors portray non-actors. Film stock is distressed to pass for archival footage. And real life merges so seamlessly with dramatization, and often social activism, that it's not always clear what's fact and what's fiction.

This sleight of hand doesn't always bother an audience, especially if its members share the filmmaker's point of view. After all, so-called objective truth -- if there is such a thing -- doesn't play so well on the big screen. (That is, unless it's Al Gore using pie charts and graphs.) Still, audiences don't like to feel duped.

All this leaves documentary filmmakers stuck on the question of disclosure and the true definition of "documentary." What exactly do they owe the audience, anyway? When do they know they've entered feature film territory?

"It's something that we struggle with continuously," said filmmaker Stacy Peralta, whose documentaries include "Dogtown and Z-Boys," the 2001 skateboarding film. "You are representing what's supposed to be a truth, [but] if we make films that don't make it to the theater, then they end up on PBS. We have to devise ways to make the films dynamic -- as interesting as fiction."

"Documentary" has increasingly become an umbrella term as filmmakers move away from the naturalistic or observational techniques of the cinéma vérité movement. The sub-genres -- including "nonfiction film" and "mockumentary," "fable" and "faux-doc" -- are as varied as filmmakers themselves.

Viewers are rarely privy to these distinctions. For example, it's not widely known that scores of birds in 2003's Oscar-nominated "Winged Migration" were raised in captivity and trained to fly with the crew's ultralight aircraft. The film was still called a documentary.

"Radiant City," the 2006 Canadian film about urban sprawl, is set up like a documentary with scenes from the life of a Calgary family interspersed with interviews with academics. But actors were placed in real suburban families and deliver lines from a script that features stories from their own lives. Much of the film is staged as a way of "underlining the un-reality" of suburban life, said Jim Brown, who directed the film with Gary Burns.

Though they drop clues to their ruse, Brown said viewers are generally unaware of their tricks until the actors reveal themselves.

"All documentaries are fake to some extent," said Brown, a Canadian radio host who has worked in print and TV journalism. "A [purist] Maysles brothers film still has a three-act structure. It still has a climax. They build to some kind of huge thing at the end. They're all manipulative to some degree."

Audiences of all kinds crave authenticity, and the desire to satisfy that hunger in splashy, dramatic ways has helped warp the line between truth and fiction to the point that the scandals are hardly shocking anymore. There was James Frey and his 2003 faux-memoir "A Million Little Pieces." Not to mention those three crazy years that Jayson Blair published faux-news in the New York Times.

Filmmakers, meanwhile, have answered the demand for heightened reality with a flood of documentaries, driven by accessible technology, a polarized political climate and the promise of fortune planted by those rare blockbusters. The market is saturated with docs, YouTube clips and camera phone videos motivating filmmakers to find creative ways to break through the clutter.

In this context, merging documentary and feature film seems like an almost evolutionary step.

It's one of the reasons why Michael Winterbottom's 2006 feature film "The Road to Guantanamo," a dramatized version of the true story of three British men who were captured by U.S. forces, won documentary awards in Britain and the U.S.

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