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13 Movies That Blur the Line Between Documentary and Fiction

The critically acclaimed ‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ is part of a fine tradition of hybrids that are part reality, part classic movie storytelling

This weekend brings the “virtual cinema” VOD release of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-documentary that wowed audiences at the Sundance, Berlin and True/False film festivals earlier this year, before the pandemic derailed the festival season. Directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross — filmmakers who’ve produced strikingly vibrant non-fiction/fiction hybrids for over a decade now — Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets depicts the last night of a Las Vegas dive bar, as it hosts a farewell party for its regular customers over the course of a long, boozy day and night, around the time of the 2016 presidential election. 

But here’s the twist: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was actually mostly shot in New Orleans, not Vegas, and the barflies are a mix of local Louisiana actors and regular folks cast by the Ross brothers for their personalities. These details aren’t meant to be a secret, and knowing them by no means diminishes what the Rosses have accomplished. Their film is uncannily accurate in the way it evokes both the feeling of drunken honesty during a night of heavy imbibing and the volatile temper of a country in transition. Even more amazing, the cast and crew does all this on the fly, with no script and only a little pre-planning. Together they’ve produced something funny and poignant — and even a little scary at times, given how hammered the cast gets.

Anyone who’s watched a lot of documentaries will know fairly quickly that this movie isn’t exactly what it pretends to be. Some shots and scenes have clearly been mapped out and some incidents and conversations feel coached. But none of that is not a knock against the film, which is one of 2020’s best.

Anyone who’s watched a lot of documentaries will also know that few non-fiction films are completely on the up-and-up. There’s a long tradition — dating back to the earliest days of documentary feature filmmaking — of movies that attempt to capture reality by staging it. On the flip side, there’s also a tradition in fiction filmmaking of using non-professional actors and actual locations to add authenticity.

Some of the most effective films do a bit of both. For example, at 2020’s Sundance, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was joined in the documentary program by David France’s excellent Welcome to Chechnya (currently on HBO), which uses cutting-edge digital technology to disguise the identities of its subjects by covering their faces with the faces of actors. Rather than making the movie feel phony, the gimmick enhances its larger story about people forced by circumstance to hide who they really are.

Here, then, is a look at some similarly innovative and influential films, which have blended the actual and the artificial, skillfully and with purpose.

Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert J. Flaherty’s ethnographic study of an indigenous Canadian Arctic tribe didn’t just help popularize the very concept of feature-length documentaries, it also touched off an endless and seemingly irresolvable debate about the proper use of manipulation and staging in non-fiction filmmaking. To make his protagonist seem more primitive, Flaherty excluded inconvenient details about his life. He also encouraged “Nanook” (not the man’s real name) to use ancient tools and techniques while hunting, rather than his rifle. Nanook of the North captures some truths about the way of life in frozen climes, but what it really reveals is Flaherty’s presumptions about what audiences expect to see native people do.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Some of the earliest films publicly exhibited in the 1890s were the short, single-take slice-of-life scenes called “actualités” by the Lumière brothers. Over 30 years later, Soviet filmmaker and inventor Dziga Vertov reimagined that concept and showed how far cinema had come with his Man with a Movie Camera, which features shots of daily life taken from in and around various cities in the USSR, all cut together into a propulsive, thrilling mega-montage, given the drive and power of a magnificent machine. Vertov depicts reality, sure — but he puts these images in service of a piece of abstract art, reflecting its creator’s vision of modern life.

Pather Panchali (1955)

In the 1940s, a handful of Italian filmmakers sparked a cinematic revolution with a storytelling approach dubbed “neorealism,” in which the joys and pains of the poor and the working class were depicted artfully, yet with an emphasis on grit and sweat — and were often performed by non-professional actors. Neorealism spread rapidly around the globe, opening up various regional movie industries to new ideas and artists. Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray took advantage of the moment to make his debut film: an adaptation of a Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay novel, about a peasant family trying to eke out a living in the country. Ray captured the rhythms and textures of rural Bengal with such sensitivity that many international critics presumed he was just filming his own reality; in fact, he was from a family of urban intellectuals, and much of Pather Panchali’s cast had worked on stage and screen for years.

Perri (1957)

As part of Walt Disney’s lifelong mission to educate as well as entertain, his studio produced a series of nature documentaries under the banner of “True-Life Adventures” — even though in many of them, “true life” was tweaked during production so the filmmakers could get the shot they wanted. The most notorious example of this is the doc White Wilderness, for which cameramen shoved lemmings off a cliff when the little critters wouldn’t toddle off on their own. The most fun example? That would be Perri: ostensibly an objective study of a squirrel’s life, but also actually an adaptation of a novel by Bambi author Felix Salten. Disney did label Perri a “True-Life Fantasy,” so the company wasn’t trying to fool anybody. Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating example of how to construct an entire fiction film out of documentary footage of wild animals.

Portrait of Jason (1967)

Like a lot of the experimental filmmakers who worked in the New York underground in the 1950s and 1960s, Shirley Clarke frequently blurred the line between the real and the artificial, often calling attention to the construction of cinema — even when pointing a camera at her friends and acquaintances. Portrait of Jason contains a lengthy filmed interview with Jason Holliday: a gay, African-American hustler and raconteur, whose lively stories about his life become less and less “fun” as he gets drunker and drunker. Clarke includes the voices of herself and her partner Carl Lee off-screen, pushing their subject to be more honest, while sometimes actively attacking his character. This absorbing film pushes viewers to question whether what they’re witnessing is just a performance, exaggerated by alcohol.

F for Fake (1973)

Orson Welles dares viewers to spot the trickery in his freewheeling cinematic essay F for Fake, a documentary that starts out discussing frauds and forgers but then ends with an admission that a good chunk of what we’ve just seen is a lie. There are fascinating digressions throughout the film — stories about phony Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving, about secret art-market scandals, and about the troubles Welles himself got into with his infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. But ultimately, this movie is one big magic trick. Our host takes us into his confidence, distracts us with his charm and then performs some devilish sleight-of-hand with the facts.

Stroszek (1977)

Director Werner Herzog elevates the very idea of the fiction/non-fiction hybrid into the realm of the righteous, declaring that his habit of using non-actors in fiction films and overt fakery in non-fiction films is all about achieving “ecstatic truth” — a truth more profound than mere “facts.” Stroszek is maybe Herzog’s purest (or impurest, depending on how you look at it) combination of real and unreal. Made as a favor to its star Bruno Schleinstein — an eccentric musician who’d previously appeared in the director’s 1974 masterpiece The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser — the movie is mostly set in the American heartland, where the hero arrives on a whim after miserable experiences at home in Berlin. Stroszek doesn’t have much of a plot; instead it rambles from incident to incident, using the comic potential of Schleinstein’s hangdog persona to explore some of the odder corners of the U.S.

My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Here’s one of the more fascinating examples of reality reframed as theater. Old friends Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn — both acclaimed for their work on the stage and screen as writers, directors and actors — turned one of their regular conversations about philosophy, politics and personal growth into a screenplay about one heady give-and-take over a meal in Manhattan. These are two real people, talking about things they actually care about, based on their own experiences. And yet as performed by Gregory and Shawn and directed by Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre is like a great stage play, shot as cinema.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

One of the most acclaimed documentarians of his generation, Errol Morris is the master of the direct-to-camera interview, where his subjects tell their stories in ways as thorough and honest as the director can elicit. But for the purposes of this list, what’s most relevant about Morris’ style is his use of dramatic reenactments to illustrate what his interviewees say. That motif is especially effective in the true-crime doc The Thin Blue Line, where Morris presents convincing recreations of the clues and evidence in a murder case, and then repeats them with different details that contradict what we’ve already seen. In addition to being a gripping tale of injustice, The Thin Blue Line is also an education in how we can be deceived by our habit of expecting visual evidence and official testimony to be authoritative.

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

Neorealism evolved in remarkable ways in Iran in the 1990s, as a wave of filmmakers led by Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi began telling intensely subjective stories about everyday life, framed in ways that encouraged audiences to weigh the reality of what they were seeing. Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence is at once playful and provocative. The director makes a movie about himself, recalling how he tried to recreate a violent incident from his youth with the help of actors, who kept changing what actually happened in subtle ways. This is a beautiful and wry film about memory and regret, which considers how both can wax and wane over time. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

A big reason why The Blair Witch Project became such a phenomenon in the summer of 1999 was because a number of people were led to believe that this pioneering found-footage horror film was a real document of real people, who’d filmed themselves getting lost in a haunted Maryland forest. But here’s the thing: That impression isn’t entirely wrong. No, the cast of The Blair Witch Project didn’t die in the woods of supernatural causes. But the actors didn’t know what directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez would throw at them from day to day or hour to hour… which meant that a lot of their terrified reactions were genuine.

Catfish (2010)

Two documentaries dominated the conversation at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. One was Exit Through the Gift Shop, an eye-opening behind-the-scenes peek at the craziness of the modern art world, directed by the trickster artist known as “Banksy.” The other was Catfish, a first-person story about the unmasking of an internet impostor. The latter was so popular that it spawned an MTV series and birthed a new term for a certain kind of on-line fraud: “catfishing.” It also raised questions that have never been satisfactorily addressed, about whether the filmmakers knew all along about the big lie they ended up exposing, and about whether they were just playing along with it for the sake of building drama. Along with Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish heralded an age of documentaries influenced subtly by reality TV and social media, helping to define an era when suddenly seemingly everyone was on-camera all the time — and always posing.

The Act of Killing (2012)

Like A Moment of Innocence, The Act of Killing uses reenactments to try and get at the truth of traumas from the distant past. But director Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s film is much less whimsical — even though its reenactments take the form of Hollywood westerns, gangster movies and musicals. As for the actors, many of them are men who oversaw mass murders in Indonesia. In the documentary, they’re forced to confront their own cruelty and brutality, through their participation in a theatrical performance.

Tower (2016)

The “animated documentary” has become a sub-genre unto itself in recent years, with films like Chicago 10, Waltz with Bashir and The Wanted 18 combining real people’s voices and memories with abstracted images that show the viewer places and incidents never caught on film. Director Keith Maitland’s Tower is one of the most powerful fusions of animation and non-fiction, telling the story of a 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas with the help of actors who deliver the testimonies of the survivors and pose for live-action reenactments of the shooting — later drawn over via a rotoscoping process. The most moving parts of the film come late, when the real people replace the cartoons, and ground this tragedy in reality.