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Hybrid Reality: When Documentary and Fiction Breed to Create a Better Truth

By Chuleenan Svetvilas

From Royston Tan's '15.'Photo: King Li. Courtesy of San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

What is a documentary film but the search for a truth or a representation of reality, past and present? In this pursuit, a director can take any number of approaches—using experimental techniques, archival footage and photographs, interviews with historians, vérité camerawork, animation and more. There is "no one way to do it," says Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of Film and Media Art at New York's Museum of Modern Art. For Bandy, the documentary is a hybrid form. In fact, she has curated a program of films entitled "Hybrid" for this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held in April in Durham, North Carolina.

"Hybrid films are not new," says Bandy. "The most perceptive films about the world often mix and match their approach, style and format—blending the historical and narrative with real or re-created interviews." She proves her point in the 16 films she selected for "Hybrid," a wide-ranging group, including Robert Flaherty's last film Louisiana Story (1948), Michael Powell's Return to the Edge of the World (1978), Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi's Dal Polo all'Equatore (From the Pole to the Equator) (1986) and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990).

Bandy says that each of these films fit in the hybrid category for different reasons. In Louisiana Story, sponsored by Standard Oil, the people of the bayou essentially become actors, reenacting their lives for Flaherty's camera. Return to the Edge of the World combines Powell's 1937 fiction film about the difficult life on the island of Foula with a documentary he made decades later when he went back to the island with some of the actors. In Dal Polo all'Equatore, the directors take Luca Comerio's found documentaries of World War I, the South Pole and Africa, and re-edit and re-write them to create another narrative—one that comments on colonialism and Italian history. Bandy includes Goodfellas, Scorsese's narrative film, as part of the series because it is based on the true story of mobster Henry Hill and captures the time in which he lived.

The history of documentaries as a film genre is a history of addressing the question of what constitutes the representation of social reality. The narrative film, however, is an attempt to create an imaginative conception of what is called reality. The blurring of these forms—documentary and fictional narrative—is a creative and interpretive challenge that filmmakers have been concerned with since the inception of cinema in the late 19th century.

In four recent films, CSA: The Confederate States of America, Tarnation, Empathy and 15, the directors blend fact, fiction and genre. Each of their works could be categorized as hybrid documentaries.

Kevin Willmott says he was looking for "a new way to approach the issue of slavery and make it real to people today." The result is CSA: The Confederate States of America, a "faux documentary" that chronicles an alternate history in which the South won the Civil War and slavery is legal. The film screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and will be distributed by IFC Films. When he initially began working on the film, it was a documentary about the fictional Fauntroys, a powerful Southern family that traced its political ties back to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But, Willmott says, "I couldn't make it believable." After he saw Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War—in particular, the segment that revealed the Confederacy's plans to take over Mexico and South America—he realized that a public television-style approach would be perfect. But since PBS would not exist in the CSA, Willmott made CSA a production of the fictional British Broadcasting Service (BBS).

Willmott sets the documentary in an alternate present, the CSA (not the USA). As viewers watch CSA, documentary segments are broken up by commercials for Darkie Toothpaste, Coon Chicken Inn, and cures for draptomania, a condition causing slaves to escape. The documentary uses a History Channel/PBS-style format, including archival footage both real and created, photographs, matter-of-fact interviews with "historians" and others commenting on the CSA's history from the Civil War to the present, and footage of a musical and a narrative film from the country's past and present. He says his strategy was to "take things that were true and bend them a little." For example, many of the products mentioned in the contemporary commercials were actual products produced in the US, including Darkie toothpaste. Draptomania was a racist pseudo-scientific term concocted during slavery to "explain" why slaves ran away. So the filmmaker did not have to stretch the truth very far. Instead, he took certain facts to their logical conclusion had the South won.

CSA uses a variety of formats, depending on what Willmott was shooting. For instance, the high-end commercial for Confederate insurance and the clip from a "Hollywood" film were shot in 35mm, the low-budget infomercial for a slave auction in digital video, the talking-head documentary interviews in 16mm and the "archival" footage of an exiled Abraham Lincoln with a hand-cranked camera.

By using the documentary form, Willmott feels that he has reached a deeper truth. "A straightforward narrative leaves people an out," says Willmott, who is also a screenwriter and playwright. "They can just say, 'Oh, it's just a story.' CSA doesn't allow you to do that. You don't have a comfort zone." CSA is full of jaw-dropping scenarios that were based on reality, creating a documentary that offers a provocative view of slavery, often with a darkly humorous edge.

Jonathan Cauoette also uses a range of formats but for an entirely different film, Tarnation, which he defines as a "cathartic exorcism and a visual journal." Tarnation, which garnered critical acclaim at Sundance this year and which will be released through Wellspring in fall 2004, is a documentary about his dysfunctional family and his relationship with his mother, Renee. When Renee was a young woman, her parents consented to giving her shock treatments, thinking that they would help her. She endured years of shock treatments and as a result, suffered mental damage. Since Cauoutte's mother could not take care of him when she was hospitalized, he was primarily raised by Renee's parents.

A precocious young boy, Cauoette first began making films when he was eight years old. At 11, he says he dressed up as a woman and filmed himself "doing an improv monologue about a battered mother who was kicked in the stomach while pregnant by her ex-husband." That startling scene is in Tarnation. "I've got hundreds of audio tapes, answering machine messages and hours of film and video footage," he says, "ranging in every format imaginable—Super-8, VHS, Betamax, Hi-8." He calls himself a pack rat and says he has more than 20 years of footage that he shot and then used for Tarnation. The film includes footage of the high school musical he directed, music videos of himself lip-synching to Marianne Faithfull songs, clips from the short films he made, phone machine messages, painful confessions to his video camera, family photographs and interviews with his family.

When asked if he set out to make a film that played with form, Cauoette says, "I just worked on instinct. Tarnation is an organic stream of consciousness. I would start with a song that I liked that could set the mood. Then I'd insert video images, stills, effects and text to the downbeat, whatever it took to tell the story." He felt he needed to be inventive to convey all the details. Was a more traditional documentary form too limiting? "A documentary is a nonfictional film that conveys to an audience the truth of a matter," says Caouette. "And if it does that effectively, it hardly matters what style or form is used."

Amie Siegel consciously plays with form in Empathy, which she defines as a "hybrid documentary/scripted narrative." But she says that she sometimes calls it a "new mosaic of film genres" or a "pastiche." Her film defies easy description because it alternates between a narrative about Lia, an actress in psychoanalysis, interviews with three practicing white male analysts, footage of auditions for the actress role and, in the midst of those segments, a short documentary about the relationship between psychoanalysis and modernist architecture and furniture-in particular, the Eames chair, which became known as the psychoanalyst's chair. The filmmaker wanted that segment to look like a television documentary, with slow pans over photographs and a sterile voiceover, but "slightly tongue-in-cheek."

How did Empathy develop? When Siegel began working on the film, she says she was surprised by how "status quo most documentary, especially television documentary, has become—mainly talking-head subjects intercut with B-roll of historical footage, still photographs." Instead, she says, "I wanted to make something that both parodied that to a certain extent and broke away from it." She was also interested in how much certain documentaries are manipulated or directed, with "filmmakers prepping their subjects, feeding or condensing responses by asking subjects to repeat their comment in a particular way, or performing compassion in order to invoke a certain response or aggravate certain emotions." The relationship between the director and the performer reminded her of the psychoanalytic relationship. Thus the filmmaker says, Empathy became a film about the power dynamics in three relationships: analyst/patient, interviewer/interviewee and director/performer.

"The more I worked on the project," says Siegel, "the more it became clear that the film was also about boundary crossing—the boundaries between therapist and patient and the boundaries between truth and fiction—so the film bent that way even more, especially in the editing." The overall result is a smart film that works on many levels. Her off-camera voice questioning the analysts mimics the classic analyst/patient relationship; the analysts talk about their feelings for and fantasies about their female patients, as well as the voyeurism of their profession; the audience is part of the voyeurism of cinema; the auditioning actresses perform for the director; Lia's psychoanalyst, who is an analyst in real life, performs his lines, scripted by Siegel. Empathy is being released in June through First Run/Icarus Films.

Royston Tan's 15 is a hybrid film that is essentially a re-enactment of scenes from the lives of five 15-year-old street kids in Singapore. The boys each play themselves and use their real first names. Tan says that everyone in the film portrays him—or herself, including the extras. The gangsters in the fight scenes are really young gangsters in Singapore, albeit from the same gang, which made it possible for the filmmaker to end fight scenes before anyone was hurt.

Tan met the main characters in 15 when he was teaching a speech and drama class at a high school in Singapore. "Most of the students in the class were gangsters," he says. Once he gained their trust, they began telling him stories about their lives. When Tan decided that he wanted to make a film about them, he selected five boys—narrowed down from a field of 200—followed them for a year, wrote down their stories and occasionally filmed them. He selected them based on their stories and their ability to be unselfconscious in front of the camera. Some of this footage became his short film, also titled 15, which became the first segment of the feature-length 15. Tan also gave cameras to the actors; some of their footage was used in the film, such as the painful scene in which the teenager is cutting his arm, drawing blood.

Tan wrote five different versions of his script so that if something happened to one of his actors—each of whom have been in trouble with the law—the film could still go on. His preparation was justified. During production, one of his actors was arrested but the filmmaker was able to work around it because he structured the film into segments of the boys' lives, focusing on a few characters at a time. All the re-enactments, which make up the majority of the film, were shot in 15 days in one or two takes. Tan would talk to the actors about a particular scene and then they would re-enact it, creating their own dialogue. He says his only direction to them was simply, "Don't try to act." The film is primarily scenes from their lives, with some music video segments of the actors rapping to jarring techno music.

When asked if his film was a narrative or a documentary, Tan says that before production began on 15, he had no idea what his film would be like. "I just had to follow my instincts," he says. "The style chose me." The result is a window into the lives of some deeply troubled street kids in Singapore. He says that his secret objective was to create a mirror for the boys through the film. "I didn't want to tell them what is right or wrong," says Tan. "I didn't want to judge." So he used the film. After the boys saw the film, Tan says they began to move away from the gangs. As of this writing, one of the boys is in jail for a stabbing and another one has moved to Malaysia to avoid the gangs in Singapore. The film began making the festival rounds last year and screened at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March.

The hybrid documentary is not new. Are more films playing with form nowadays? Bandy believes that hybrid works are more popular now as audiences are more receptive to creative work. "Good films that are talking about the truth are welcome right now," she says. "People have an enormous curiosity about how people live and react." When asked if a deeper truth is revealed through hybrid works, she replies, "In telling what you're trying to tell, a narrative story can be more truthful than a straight documentary, creating a narrative fiction can be extremely effective."

But ultimately, Bandy notes, a documentary should be about some kind of truth, revealing an unknown story.


Chuleenan Svetvilas is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif. She was formerly the editor of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation.