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Maryland Film Festival: Smudging the Line between Docs and Fiction

By Michael Galinsky

Judging from the films on display at the Maryland Film Festival, we are having a bit of an existential crisis in our film culture, which likely reflects trends that will ripple through our culture at large in the near future. In terms of form and theme, every film that I saw raised serious questions about not only how we define the real, but also about how we communicate about it. In a world in which we are flooded with both hyper-produced and seemingly instantaneous images, it's hard to grasp the meaning of authenticity.

Humans are wired to find patterns. When we don't have them we often feel lost and anxious. When they are too distinct we can feel trapped or bored. It is this impulse towards pattern-making that allows us to make sense of the world for ourselves and for others. From the very first frame of a film, the filmmaker starts the process of building patterns in order to shape our expectations both thematically and aesthetically.

Festival programmers also understand the importance of patterns. By making connections between the films that they show, they can turn 12 features into a sprawling 15-hour work that connects the larger themes that run throughout the program. Maryland Film Festival programmer Eric Hatch worked closely with a larger group of people to pull together a diverse set of narrative and fiction films that, taken as a whole, smudge the line between documentary and fiction.

Shortly after I arrived in Baltimore, I jumped into a festival shuttle in order to get to Darius Clark Monroe's Evolution of a Criminal. The film mixes mediums and styles in a personal documentary memoir that skillfully strains conventional notions and expectations of documentary films. The project began before HD cameras were widely available. As such, this early footage is low-res and exceedingly intimate. Later, after several years in graduate film school at NYU, Monroe worked with a highly skilled cinematographer to craft hyper-stylized "re-creations" that challenge the cable TV notion of this form. Instead they are shot with the eye and intention of a narrative filmmaker.  The different forms highlight the ways that point of view, and format, of media affects the way that we experience the work, and what we communicate.


From Darius Clark Monroe's Evolution of a Criminal


Thematically, Evolution of a Criminal deals with fraught questions of race, class, privilege, identity, agency and responsibility. It navigates these murky waters by hewing to the adage, "show, don't tell." All of the discussion sticks to the personal issues at hand, and these larger cultural forces are teased out through the storytelling, rather than through talking-head interviews, experts or graphs of facts and figures. The film raises more questions about social issues than most social issue docs do by sticking to the story, leaving the discussion to the audience. Evolution of a Criminal is so effective because the criminal is telling his own tale. More memoir than journalism, it is still very much a documentary, even as it uses the tricks and tools of narrative filmmaking to connect emotionally with the audience.   

The next film I saw, Marshall Curry's Point and Shoot, raised profound questions about these same issues. Like Evolution of a Criminal, Point and Shoot was something of a memoir. The subject, Matthew Van Dyke, was brought up as an only child by a doting single mother. After getting his master's degree in Middle East studies without ever having visited the Middle East, or even living on his own, he decided to take drastic measures to change his life. Wanting to shake off his past and make himself into a new person, he learned to ride a motorcycle, and he set off for Morocco. Taking along a camera, he used it to help himself craft a new sense of self, and as a tool to interact with the world. Over time he grew into the role he had created for himself, and made friends in ways that he had been previously unable to. Shortly after returning to America, he saw that some of these new friends had come under attack in Libya. Though his girlfriend wasn't happy about it, he felt compelled to join them in their civil war. To say it was a harrowing journey would be a major understatement. His camera became a second character in his journey and in the film. 


From Marshall Curry's Point and Shoot


Upon his return to the states he reached out to several filmmakers to partner with him in order to turn his footage into a movie. Curry agreed. The film he constructed consists almost entirely of Van Dyke's footage. It is woven together with a number of interviews that Curry conducted with Van Dyke, his girlfriend and others.

Curry is credited as the director of the film, while Van Dyke is credited as a producer. At first glance, this felt somehow unfair. However, upon closer inspection, this clear line of demarcation begins to make more sense. Like any good doc subject, Van Dyke is a flawed character, and he is portrayed as such. In the first frames of the film, Curry presents us with footage that Van Dyke had shot of himself before his journey. He goes through the materials and weapons he has acquired for his journey, almost as if he is a TV personality. It becomes clear that this was his goal: He had hoped to create a travel adventure show, without understanding what that meant or what it entailed. This footage, and that which follows, raises questions about his motivations, privilege and even his sanity. These issues are clarified by the content, and the editing of the film.

On some level, it is hard to understand how a film that uses so much of the footage that Van Dyke shot with the intention of making a documentary does not credit him as a director. However, it becomes clear that Van Dyke, as interesting and talented as he is, might not have had the critical distance from his own story that's needed to do the story justice. As such, the sole director credit makes more sense. In order for Curry to make the film, he had to have the trust of his subject and the freedom to craft the story he discovered, rather than the story that Van Dyke might have wanted to project. 

Reality and point of view are challenged in more ways than one by the next film I saw, Robert Greene's Actress. The film begins with a noirishly lit shot of the actress in question, washing dishes. There is an intentional artifice about the shot that sets the tone for the film. The hand of the filmmaker is strongly felt. However, while it is clear that the filmmaker is close to the subject, the fourth wall remains firmly intact and his voice and presence are not inserted into the narrative. Very early in the film, the "subject" repeats the same line about being an actress. She does it in several different ways, as if she is giving line readings to the director in a narrative film. This not only raises questions about the line between documentary and fiction, but also about how the practice of acting affects the sense of self. The line between documentary and fiction is tested in the film, but there is no passing or failing in the test—just an illumination of the semi-conscious patterns and expectations we have when the lights go down.


From Robert Greene's Actress


I hustled out of the Q&A in order to see Art and Craft, by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. Like the three documentaries I saw before it, the film kicks the tires of reality. The main subject is an art forger. He is not a "professional," as he makes no money from it, but he is incredibly skilled at his craft. Diagnosed at 17 with a host of psychiatric problems, Mark Landis has some difficulty living in the "real" world. At some point, he began to re-create famous paintings and drawings. He then donated these works to museums. Ideas of authenticity are challenged when we learn that many of the paintings hung in museums for years and no one realized they were fakes, even though he had given the same fakes to multiple museums. The film also focuses on his nemesis, a former curator who becomes obsessed with exposing Landis, in an effort to bring order back to the art world. While these efforts have raised awareness of Landis' fraud, he continues to paint. Each of the characters is obsessed with his own reality.


From Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker's Art and Craft


When one sees three or four documentaries in a row that work with similar themes, patterns emerge. These films, taken together, begin to tell a much larger story of a cultural shift in relation to consuming media. There is a hunger among artists to illuminate patterns that have become too expected. These works push, and challenge, both our aesthetic understanding of films and our shifting views of the world around us.

The next day I ended up seeing a string of narrative films that played with similar themes.  The Zellner brothers' Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is based around the mash-up of reality and fiction. In fact, the film is partly based on a news item about a Japanese woman with a tenuous grasp on reality who finds a copy of the Coen brothers' Fargo and views it as a documentary. She obsessively studies the text for clues as to where Steve Buscemi's character had buried his stolen treasure. In the film, when things fall apart in her life, she steals the company credit card and heads to America to find the treasure. The film itself is stylized and cinematic, and has no stylistic pretensions of being a documentary. But it is largely about ideas that exist in the intersection between reality and documentation.  "How," it seemingly asks, "are we to tell fiction from reality in a world in which we are subsumed with media that confuses these lines?" In fact, at one point a Minnesota police officer who is trying to help Kumiko tries to explain the difference between reality TV, fiction and documentary. She does not understand.

Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child, which I saw next, is also a fiction film, but it's clear that the main character is not reaching too far from her own life to represent the character. A standup comedian (Jenny Slate) plays...a standup comedian (Donna Stern). Like Actress, the film follows the life struggles of an aspiring artist, her performances and her romantic ups and downs. Stylistically Obvious Child is clearly a rom-com and doesn't pretend to be a documentary. However, it might feel like one in 30 years. While one film played in the documentary section and one in the narrative one, the line between them is not as distinct.

Local favorite Michael Tully's Ping Pong Summer is a fiction film that draws on the filmmaker's youth in Maryland. For the audience it must have felt like a documentary from their childhood. Tully made a concerted effort to shoot on film so that it would feel like an artifact from the past. Stylistically this period piece doesn't flirt with the line between fake and real; it is profoundly stylized. However, in its embrace of '80s culture, Ping Pong Summer becomes a kind of artifact in itself, and further highlights the patterns that emerge in the other films around it.

In the end, themes concerning point of view and reality are clearly rising to the top of the artistic food chain. When we look back in a few years, we'll see 2014 as a watershed year in terms of both style and theme. 

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.