AFI FEST: Six Films That Blur the Line Between Documentary and Fiction – American Film Institute


AFI FEST: Six Films That Blur the Line Between Documentary and Fiction

AFI FEST 2016 presented by Audi features four documentary features, but at least six more that are impossible to define in these terms: FIRE AT SEA, A DRAGON ARRIVES!, ACTOR MARTINEZ, THE FUTURE PERFECT, FEAR ITSELF and FRAUD.

The most basic assurance any live-action film can offer is that for a moment in time, what is seen actually occurred in front of a camera — and it’s the authenticity of those actions that can be called into question. If truth is an element somehow intrinsic to cinema, documentary should be its natural state and most sincere application, but this presumption of truth has been alternately taken for granted and exploited since the beginning of cinema. Though early documentaries, called actualités, such as THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN (1895), were countered by the trick films of Georges Méliès, there were also those less immediately identifiable, such as THE EXECUTION OF MARY STUART (1895), which deceived audiences with a realistically staged beheading.


Though in 2016, the average cinephile has been rendered rightfully suspect after seeing every variation on truth: the fake documentary, the mockumentary and a range of fictitious claims. Even those unfamiliar with these precedents are likely more media-literate than ever before. Exceedingly sensitive to our own manipulation, an audience’s natural response is first to question. What does it mean, for instance, when a documentary lists a screenwriting credit, as does Gianfranco Rosi’s FIRE AT SEA? Or when a film based on a true story suggests the existence of a mythical creature, as does Mani Haghighi’s A DRAGON ARRIVES!? Where Rosi’s partially scripted documentary flouts the limited structural and aesthetic expectations of the documentary form, Haghighi’s film draws from these to lend his narrative emotional weight.


Beyond a critique of the credulousness of their audiences, an alternate if complicated truth can emerge, one that demands audience engagement. The Mike Ott/Nathan Silver collaboration ACTOR MARTINEZ explores the truth that emerges naturally from a dearth of scripted material, relying instead on an authentic personality, actor Arthur Martinez, to fill in the gaps of their preliminary two-page outline. Likewise, in her narrative feature debut THE FUTURE PERFECT, German/Argentinian director Nele Wohlatz makes apparent her documentary beginnings, casting non-actress Zhang Xiaobin to reenact her experience as an immigrant in Argentina, an experience parallel to Wohlatz’s. An at-times absence of naturalness on the part of Martinez and Xiaobin becomes an integral part of the authentic experience communicated through their respective films.

READ MORE: The AFI FEST Interview with ACTOR MARTINEZ Directors Mike Ott and Nathan Silver

Others emulate familiar documentary forms to evoke a specific response in which emotional investment is heightened by the belief in kind of authenticity. Charlie Lyne’s FEAR ITSELF channels and fictionalizes the personal essay sub-genre, which includes Thom Anderson’s LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF (2003) and A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995). FEAR ITSELF bears a distinct association with Dean Fleisher-Camp’s FRAUD, as both are essentially found-footage films. Though neither FEAR ITSELF nor FRAUD makes any explicit claims to authenticity, the mostly horror-film source material used and cited in the first is recognizable, as is the home video format of the latter, depicting a family who seemingly perform only for themselves.


A jaw-dropping centerpiece to this surprising collection of films, Fleisher-Camp’s FRAUD, has already provoked strong reactions at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. Culled from over 100 hours of a family’s home movies, which were uploaded to YouTube, with no collaboration between family and filmmaker and no staged footage, Fleisher-Camp stirred the anger of some audience members who felt their trust had been betrayed despite the authenticity of his material.

While engaging with these presumed notions of truth in documentary and posing these questions is essential, it is equally essential to consider the complexity of authenticity and the century-long debate regarding truth in cinema. These six films featured at AFI FEST 2016 presented by Audi each offer a new and singular perspective in the debate.

Pictured above: A DRAGON ARRIVES!

A DRAGON ARRIVES!, ACTOR MARTINEZ, THE FUTURE PERFECT, FRAUD and FEAR ITSELF screen at AFI FEST 2016. A conversation with FIRE AT SEA director Gianfranco Rosi takes place on November 17.

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