How much fiction does a documentary film have? If we open the boundaries of typology, the field of creation is unlimited for filmmakers when it comes to uniting the resources of fiction with those of the documentary.
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Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty (1922)
After accidentally burning with his cigarette more than thirty feet of film with which he shot loose scenes of the Inuit tribes in the north of Quebec between 1914 and 1915, Robert Flaherty had the courage to return to those snowy lands to recover his lost images . Five years later, in 1920, Flaherty shot in a year’s time Nanook of the North, this time he made a film about the life of a single character: Allakariallak, an experienced Inuit hunter. Cataloged as a pioneering work in documentary film, Flaherty shows the daily life of his protagonist while he builds an Igloo, hunts wild animals with handmade instruments and share the spare time with his two wives. But what is presented on the screen as the pure portrait of the primitive life of a real indigenous character is nothing but a very careful dramatization. The Inuit of that time already hunted with guns, they did not live in Igloos and the two actresses who acted as wives were not the real ones of our hunter. The character of Nanook was fictionally constructed in cinema by Flaherty´s romantic urge to capture the idealized customs of the Inuit before the European influence. The film still arouses controversy especially when it comes to valuing the techniques of fiction used in documentary works.
The Arbor by Clio Barnard (2010)
English director Clio Barnard digs in the life of Andrea Dumbar, a working-class playwright who wrote three plays before dying of 29 years of age in 1990 of a stroke associated with consumption of alcohol. Barnard uses several film resources to construct a posthumous portrait of Dumbar, the most curious being the use of several actors trained in the technique of “lip-sync” to reenact the audio-only testimonies of Dumbar´s relatives and acquaintances. These reenactments alternate with the scenes of The Arbor, a play written by Dumbar and named after the poor neighborhood where she grew up. The staging of the play is filmed outdoors in several locations of the same neighborhood, so that we see curious pedestrians watching the play as it happens.
Waking Life by Richard Linklater (2001)
Conceiving a documentary film entirely animated is in itself a challenge to the margins of the genre. Is reality being portrayed as it is? To what extent should documentary images be provided with the volatility of the stroke and color that only animation techniques have? When we see Waking Life the answers to these questions surface in different tones, but the key to Richard Linklater´s aesthetic choice lays in the dramatic structure he chose in order to tell a story about the dilemmas of human existence, the weight of the human spirit, the dream phenomena and the infinite perceptions of reality. The plot consists of an anonymous young man who dreams of appearing in various places, like a bar, a city street, a room or a park, where he engages in philosophical conversations with individuals of different ages and ways of thought. The framework of our protagonist’s journey becomes so abstract that one never knows at what level of reality our protagonist is at one time or another, whether he is awake or dreaming. The scenes have a smell of documentary as they are filmed as if they were interviews or improvised moments taken from life itself, only the color and lines of digital rotoscopy make us feel at a level of reality very far away from the mundane life.
The Commune (Paris, 1871) by Peter Watkins (2000)
Known as the “father of false documentary” English director Peter Watkins chooses the propitious location of an abandoned factory in Paris to make an unprecedented historical drama about that popular revolt that in 1871 established a brief socialist commune in the French capital. After assembling a large cast consisting mostly of non-professional actors, Watkins transformed the interior of the factory into a modest décor of the Paris of that time and shot in only 13 days a reconstruction of the events within the commune through a dynamic of simulation and acting improvisation. In order to tell the story, Watkins uses the language of television coverage, in which reporters from two fictional networks, a conservative TV channel and a revolutionary one managed by the commune itself, narrate these events as they occur, interview the protagonists and infuse their political views in the images they “broadcast”. The film, which has two version of five and three hours, had a great reception by critics for being a portrait of a political historical moment filmed through an ingenious cinematographic device. The best achievement of The Commune is to foster a discussion about the inherent dialogue between the facts of reality and how these are reconstructed by the media.
Jogo de Escena by Eduardo Coutinho (2007)
Jogo de Escena begins with an empty theater, two chairs, lights and a film camera is all Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho needs to create an apology about the nature of fiction within a hypothetical documentary. After doing a casting of women with life stories to tell, Coutinho interviews those selected to listen to their own most intimate and transcendental stories. During the rhetoric, tears, laughter and doubts emerge. Coutinho intervenes with questions and comments from behind the camera so that we only hear his voice. At one point in the film the stories we already heard begin to be repeated by other women and it is when we understand that they are now being reenacted by actresses, to the point that we do not know to whom the story belongs from the beginning. The device of the interview combined with a staging where the implements of the cinema, such as lights, a clapboard or the director´s body are evident within the frame cease to be elements of the documentary to become something much more abstract, revealing the autonomy of the film frame from the traditional classifications of documentary or fiction.
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