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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
March 13th, 2008

Woodpecker.jpgLate last night, after jumping from IFC’s My Morning Jacket / Yo La Tengo concert to the wide-open SXSW Closing Night party and finally onto Joel Heller’s birthday, I wound up at the Magnolia diner, eating scrambled eggs and discussing scrambled documentaries. I was there with Dan Nuxoll from Rooftop, Joel, and Alex Karpovsky and Eric Bruggermann, the director and editor, respectively, of “The Hole Story” and 2008 SXSW selection “Woodpecker.”

I brought up the fascinating dialogue about the distinctions of fiction and non-fiction filmmaking that I had heard surrounding some of the films here at SXSW, including Alex’s film(s), Daniel Stamm’s “A Necessary Death,” and even films as different as Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen,” Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” and Josh Safdie’s “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” where categorical definitions would appear pretty straightforward. We’d heard a rumor that when “A Necessary Death” played one European festival, it was in the documentary section, and the crowd was incensed.

Why is it that people get so mad about films that blur these distinctions or even deliberately mislead the audience? Do these distinctions matter? And if so, how should we be defining these films?

[To read this entire article, please click here.]

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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
March 1st, 2008
[This is the complete article originally published on March 13, 2008.]

Woodpecker.jpgLate last night, after jumping from IFC’s My Morning Jacket / Yo La Tengo concert to the wide-open SXSW Closing Night party and finally onto Joel Heller’s birthday, I wound up at the Magnolia diner, eating scrambled eggs and discussing scrambled documentaries. I was there with Dan Nuxoll from Rooftop, Joel, and Alex Karpovsky and Eric Bruggermann, the director and editor, respectively, of “The Hole Story” and 2008 SXSW selection “Woodpecker” (pictured left).

I brought up the fascinating dialogue about the distinctions of fiction and non-fiction filmmaking that I had heard surrounding some of the films here at SXSW, including Alex’s film(s), Daniel Stamm’s “A Necessary Death,” and even films as different as Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen,” Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” and Josh Safdie’s “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” where categorical definitions would appear pretty straightforward. We’d heard a rumor that when “A Necessary Death” played one European festival, it was in the documentary section, and the crowd was incensed.

Why is it that people get so mad about films that blur these distinctions or even deliberately mislead the audience? Do these distinctions matter? And if so, how should we be defining these films?

One of the first things we realized is that general audience members, far more than film critics, filmmakers, and film programmers, do question what’s “real.” You hear in Q & A sessions how important it is to them. And a great number of film professionals also debate (and confuse) these terms and distinctions. So the distinctions do matter. And I think the first reason why they matter, why people want to know if a film is a work of fiction or non-fiction, is because people don’t like “being suckered” (as entertainment lawyer and SXSW panelist Alan Levy put it when I was discussing the issue with him). Being suckered is different from being tricked: a murder mystery tricks you, but that’s what you want it to do; a fiction film that poses as a non-fiction film (the thinking goes) suckers you. People think that the film is somehow lying to you, which you don’t want it to do.

I think this discrepancy comes initially from expectation: when you go to see an action movie, you don’t want to find yourself instead watching a quiet drama. When you see certain documentary aesthetics, you expect that what you are seeing is non-fiction. So the second and more important reason why audience members want to know the nature of the film is because of the inherent differences in the way we interact with fiction and non-fiction films. People are more likely to immediately connect emotionally with non-fiction characters because one of the greatest challenges of fiction cinema–effective suspension of disbelief–is alleviated. When a character in a fiction film does something outlandish, an audience member is likely to think, “No one would ever do that.” Not so in documentary; you have to assume they really did it. So when you think a film is non-fiction, and it turns out to be scripted, you mistrust your own emotional reading of the film. The same is true in reverse for non-fiction films. Every camera move and edit in a documentary is of course a manipulation of reality, yet people still get hung up on the details of some non-attainable objective truth.

With either fiction or non-fiction, that mental approach to film watching is limiting. We should be able to watch a movie, and analyze our feelings and our thoughts based on the emotions expressed and the ideas addressed, not solely on whether it was “real.” I think keeping the lines between fiction and non-fiction blurry is a wise move. Whether the filmmaker writes a story and casts actors to play the characters, or if the filmmaker follows the story of people leading their existing lives, the goals are the same for any film: to entertain the audience, to enlighten them, to take them to emotional highs and lows.

americanteen-poster.jpgThis is where films like Safdie’s “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and Burstein’s “American Teen” come in. I thought “American Teen” was entertaining and engaging, but I didn’t love the film because of some of the manipulations–jumps in time to enhance the weight of an emotion, moments that are clearly created in the editing room but didn’t happen live. My problem isn’t the manipulations per se, and I don’t doubt the veracity of the basic facts. My problem is that because of those manipulations, I didn’t really connect with the characters. I thought the jumps in time simplified complex emotions, and the forged scenes fell flat. When watching either a non-fiction or a fiction film, you understand that this isn’t an objective reality, but if the cuts and camera angles fail to create a subjective emotional and intellectual truth, the film has failed.

In contrast, some scenes in Josh Safdie’s film are, as he put it, “stolen”–he caught people on the street unawares and wrote them into his narrative. I was impressed by the way he was able to fluidly bring these elements into his rather fantastical story, and from a narrative standpoint, I was touched by the interactions.

Karpovsky’s “Woodpecker” is a brilliant example of the way a filmmaker can blend fact and fiction to make an amusing, moving and meaningful film that transcends either documentary or fiction modes. The film is about the true story of the supposed sighting of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the bayou of Arkansas. Hundreds of bird watchers descended on the swamps, hoping to confirm the sighting. Alex sets the stage for his film with mostly documentary footage, and provides a sincere and intriguing look into a region transformed and polarized by this funny little bird. We meet ordinary people who were transfixed by the beauty of the bird, and hunters who are displeased that the search for the bird is keeping them from their hunting grounds. There are locals opening tourist shops selling bird trinkets, and taxidermists who claim to be able to manufacture an Ivory Billed in minutes. Into this world, Alex injects Jon e. Hyrn
es
(pictured below left), an actor who Alex discovered, ironically, when Johnny appeared as the subject of another documentary, “Johnny Berlin.” Alex makes the wise point, “Much like the bird itself, “Woodpecker” explores the intersection of fact and fiction, manipulating our notions of documentary and narrative techniques within a tragic comedy about hope, perception, and some very very strange birds.”

Woodpecker2.jpgOne of the ingenious cinematic devices in “Woodpecker” is the way Karpovsky has the character he scripted continue to develop a theme first brought up by one of the documentary characters. One of the birdwatchers who (I’m pretty sure) is real, says that the bird’s cry is simply the announcement, “I am here.” This phrase becomes a core leitmotif for Johnny, the lead in the film, who himself is looking for the bird in order mark to his place in birdwatching history. This lonely guy, who drolly remarks that when his wife left him “she was essentially saying ‘I am not here,’” thinks that if he spots the bird he will somehow justify and signify his own existence. He wants to be famous, yes, but only in this obscure realm. His core desire, as he explains in one of his ludicrous but subtly insightful rants, is to be an integral part of the birdwatching community. He wants people to know he is there, to care that he’s there, and to enable people to see this bird. So as we watch Johnny mingle with the locals and drift through the swamps, we relate to the community with his specific perspective, this strange but pure and life-affirming connection with the world.

The film raises a lot of issues about environmentalism and hunting, about dying small towns and the pitfalls of media attention, about individual isolation and community, and the way in which the issues are presented through the perspective of an entertaining and astute on-screen character effectively makes them more genuine and resonant than if we were seeing them in a purportedly neutral documentary. “Woodpecker” is a far more potent use of motion pictures than a purely factual news report of the (possible) discovery of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

So if blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction can be useful, how do we define such films? Even though I think audiences shouldn’t determine their appreciation of a film by any categories or expectations, I think we need definitions in order to avoid confusion and reach a more universal understanding of these conventions, so that audience members aren’t burdened by misconceptions.

There are three essential categories, and a handful of styles within them. All films are fiction, non-fiction or a hybrid. I think one of the core confusions stems from the misleading term “narrative film.” Most films, whether based on imagination or fact, are narrative–they are telling a story. Non-fiction films, however, can be told in a variety of styles, which include documentary, verité, and recreation. Conventional “documentary” style would include films in which the camera records events as they unfold in real time, without the director intentionally influencing the action. Documentaries often include elements such as music, titles, and effects that did not appear directly in front of the camera, and interviews, in which the action is perhaps staged with lights, sets, and questions, but what the subject says is not shaped by the filmmaker. In contrast, verité filmmaking does not use any such non-diegetic elements or staged events.

Zoo_still_01.jpgA film like Robinson Devor’s “Zoo” (pictured left) is still non-fiction, because the audio and video are all based on facts not imagination, but it is a work of non-fiction not made in a documentary style, because the voices of the subjects were re-recorded by actors, and the images were recreated with actors, lighting, set-decoration, etc. (Throughout this article, I used the terms “documentary” and “narrative” to refer to the style of filmmaking, but not the category of films.) It’s interesting to note that Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” is considered a work of non-fiction (by most people), in a documentary style, even though, like “Woodpecker,” it contains scripted elements and a “character” who is interacting with real people. The differences between Spurlock’s and Karpovsky’s films is the way in which the character is presented (Spurlock as himself; Jon e. Hymes as the fictional Johnny Neander), and the essence of the narrative (Spurlock investigating a question; Karpovsky crafting a portrait).

Within hybrid films, the distinctions of style are equally varied, including mockumentaries, faux documentaries, meta-documentaries, and fake home movies. Over lunch at Stubb’s BBQ joint, I was discussing the issue with filmmakers Andrew Bujalski and Garrett Savage, and filmmaker plus “Woodpecker” co-producer Dia Sokol, and for Karpovsky’s film we settled on the term “faux documentary.” Although “Woodpecker” is black comedy, it shouldn’t be called a “mockumentary.” A “faux documentary” is a film that incorporates fiction and non-fiction, and uses the style and conventions of a doc to tell semi-fictional story. A “mockumentary,” in contrast, is completely imaginary, and tends to be making fun of the characters. Further, I think most “mockumentaries” poke fun at documentary form itself, with overly-contrived sit-down interviews and obvious nods to the camera, such as the ubiquitous “don’t film this” moments.

In “Woodpecker,” by contrast, although one is often laughing at Johnny’s naiveté and quirky obsession, he’s more like a Don Quixote, the madman on a mission who is lovable and laughable but also honest, noble, and inspiring. The film treats Johnny and all the characters with warmth and respect, so it lacks the spoofing of a mockumentary.

Non-fiction and fiction “meta-documentaries” would include films that explicitly address the essence of documentary form. “Woodpecker” does not, but Karpovsky’s “The Hole Story” and “A Necessary Death” both in some ways deal with the nature media and the way the act of filming events inherently affects the action. “Fake home movies,” such as the infamous “Blair Witch Project,” purport to verité filmmaking conventions in which the on-screen characters are filming their own lives, only the characters and actions are scripted and staged.

So, I hope all my rambling has proved helpful or at least interesting to some. It seemed interesting enough in late-night film festival conversations over eggs migas and pulled pork sandwiches. The next question, I guess, is whether I’ve accurately documented all that we discussed.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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