Fiction in a Factual Documentary World

Fiction in a Factual Documentary World

Realism and Fiction: The Challenge of Fiction in a Factual Documentary World


The documentation of life through a lens has been an ongoing form of story telling since the late 1800’s. And it is the documentary film, or actuality film that can be credited as being the first form of filmmaking. In fact one of my arguments will be that not only was the documentary film the first form of filmmaking, birthed from a new technology, but that from its success it inspired the art of fiction films. Then the argument will be made and presented that states because of the audiences desire for realism with a need for dramatics we are beginning to see a deep blending emerge within both documentary and fictional films as both forms utilize the other for their benefit.

What will be presented are the views of documentary films utilizing fictional techniques to help convey a narrative while still staying within the form of realism. Documentary filmmakers will successfully do this by taking the truth that is given to them through interviews and recreate this truth through re-enactments. Now, while strong arguments will be made toward the use of fictional techniques in documentary films by way of re-enactments, the argument will also be made that these types of practices can pose serious ethical questions. However it will be pointed out that if constructed ethically and correctly these practices can make a vast difference in the tone and reception of not only the realism but also the documentary film in general. Several documentary film examples will be used to illustrate this argument such as films by Robert Flaherty, Bart Layton, Alex Gibney and Clio Barnard who will all use fictional film techniques in order to present the audience with a more hyper real experience that supports the truth of the narrative.

Finally arguments will be made that Hollywood and Television studios have become inspired by the realism presented in documentaries and the mass audiences desire to devour such content. This inspiration has led to both major backers of fictional content utilizing not only documentary films techniques but script documentary programming.

To support this argument films by Michael Mann, Danny Boyle, and Terrence Malick will be used as all three filmmakers make use of digital cameras that are more common in documentary style of filmmaking as well as color correcting the film to look more gritty like that of a documentary. Points will also be made where science fiction and horror genres have become accustomed to using staged found footage in order to convey a documented realism. It will be confirmed that this is in fact not a new idea, but one that dates back to the early years of fictional film, but what will be argued is that the present day audience have been conditioned over the last fifteen to twenty years to want and desire realism while retaining a hint of fantasy. Thus this being the reasoning for the rapid expansion of the blending of the two types film production. As well as the massive rise of reality television and its realism or the illusion thereof.

Lastly, I will argue that this is a natural progression. That differing styles of art have always influenced each other, and that more times than not they often merge to push the art form forward presenting audiences with vastly new experiences. To competently show this, comparisons will be drawn to the dawn of the digital age and how technology not only influenced art but also then successfully merged with art through experimental forms, illustration and animation. Now, in the modern era documentary and fictional films are doing something similar and just like the previous art forms are keeping their traditional structure as well as the new adapted form.


Documenting with the Lens and the Evolution of Technology

In the late 1800’s the concept of photography became very prominent. Before this technology was founded the images the world at large was conditioned to see was that of prints and illustrations that were hand made. The invention of the photograph changed all this.

Certain individuals with names like Le Prince, Edison, and Lumiere sought to take the invention of the photograph and but use it in a way where it no longer showed a single image of one specific moment in time, but rather show several concurrent images during a specific span of time. Through this desire the birth of filmmaking began. The earliest productions using this new technology where films that documented moments in time like that of French director Louis Le Prince and his filming of Roundhay Garden Scene (1888). The short 3-second film is a documentary showing Le Prince’s eldest son Adolphe, Sarah Robinson Whitley, Joseph Whitley and Harriet Hartley walking around a garden in Roundhay, Leeds, Yorkshire, England. Soon after this discovery other inventors began experimenting and developing film equipment such as Thomas Edison and Auguste and Louis Lumiere. Both would produce short films that show a real life documented moment that would then be played back in real time for an audience.

We see early on in the process of filmmaking that reality is the mode in which film was presented to the masses. It didn’t take long for other artists to see the spectacle of film and apply it to a more fictional style, as was the case of George Melies after having seen the very first public screening of the Lumiere brothers’ films at the Grand Café in Paris. In fact Melies at the Lumiere screening offered to pay the brothers 10,000 francs for one of their cameras but was immediately turned down. (Wakeman 1987)

Either way the impression of seeing the first documented moving images of real life left a mark on Melies. He developed his own motion picture camera and began using elements of his magic stage acts to create fictional films. So, here is where we see the first influence of the documentary film upon the world of fictional films. At this point in the history of filmmaking it was more an aspect of inspiration than having any direct influence, as we will see in later generations.

The important message to take from the earliest days of film was that even though the documentary film was the first method of filmmaking the fictional film came along just as quickly. Though there is no documentation of Melies saying that he purposefully sought out to create films that were in contrast to what the Lumiere brothers’ had done, one can deduce that this would have happened naturally at some point. But for audiences of this period who were so new to the spectacle of film, there was no concept of genre or differentiating types. There are in fact stories of audience members running to the back of the room as they witnessed the screening of the Lumiere short film Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895).

It is also vitally important to realize and understand that at this point in the history of film the documentary film was not known as the documentary but was rather called actuality film and even though fictional film spawned from actuality it was more so an inspiration of storytelling than a process of techniques. Sure Melies was inspired by the camera development of the Lumiere brothers’, but he drew upon his experience as a stage performer and magician more than anything he saw within the documentaries of Lumiere’s. It was all about the differentiating way to tell a story, to convey a factual story or a fictional story and this is the area in which the modern documentary and fictional films are meeting. The merging of story-telling devices through the use of factual elements and fiction to completely recreates something that has actually happened.


Use of Fictional Techniques and Ethical Question

While the retelling of truth through the lens has been something documentary films have been doing since their inception it was the fictional film that took the documented truth and dramatized it. It is this dramatization that intrigues the larger mass audience. Early in fictional film history there were such films like that of Birth of a Nation (1915) that took documented truth and dramatized itself, however some scenes viewed by an inexperienced audience were seen as actuality thus leading the audience to believe these scenes were played out in real time. This is the first form of Docudrama.

For some background Docudrama is a form of fictional film where the narrative is influenced by actual events, but were void of any real time footage, instead the events of the documented past were re-created in a dramatic form that fit within the script. This same mode of filmmaking was used in the pseudo documentary silent film In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) that was filmed one year prior to Birth of a Nation. What made Head Hunters different from Birth was that it was a staged narrative presented to the audience as a complete re-enactment of Native American life.

We would see this again several years later when the father of the modern documentary Robert Flaherty directed Nanook of the North in 1922. Again we have a filmmaker taking the realities of a historical people and bringing in those of that culture to re-enact these realities. What we now know is that the man who played Nanook and the individuals that played his family were not really a family and in fact were not related at all. However what is very interesting in this film is we have the documentary film taking aspects of fictional films to help convey how life was for Inuit generations of Nanook’s ancestors. These aspects that Flaherty used were that of staged environments. For instance Flaherty wanted to film Nanook and his family within an igloo. However the restrictions of light and space inside an igloo was something that Flaherty could not compensate for. So, Flaherty staged an igloo scene by building an igloo that consisted of three walls and open air top so that Flaherty’s bulky camera could fit inside and so that the natural light would act as a lighting source.

This staging of sorts was also used in two documentary film productions that involved the father of British documentary film John Grierson. In 1929 Grierson directed his only personal film in the form of Drifters. It told the story of a fishing boat and their attempts to catch herring at sea. However when the boat was returning to port the crew had not made a catch, so Grierson bought the catch from another boat and placed it in the boat from his documentary. He eventually scrapped this material, as it was deemed non-authentic. But in 1936 Grierson narrated the film Night Mail by Harry Watt and Basil Wright in which scenes inside the train were re-enacted on a soundstage. So we see that documentary and fictional films in the early days did have some similarities, but nothing like the similarities and the influence that they have today.

However what is interesting during this time period of early film history is that even though fictional films were very popular, the documentary film also enjoyed its greatest years of theatrical releases during this time. For the most part during the Wartime and Pre-Wartime periods the documentary existed through the use of Government backed productions or through the newsreel’s like that of The March of Time from 1935-1951. The importance of March of Time was its use of actual news footage along side re-enactments.

Again were seeing the fictional come together with the factual, but along with it came some questions, and in fact some of those questions began to come up as early as Nanook. The questions being raised were with regard to the use of re-enactments in documentary films. Using something fictional within the narrative of something that was factual.

Now, certain conditions warranted such moves and that is understandable. But for sequences where there were no hindrances as was the case with some instances in The March of Time newsreels questions were put forth as to why were reenactments used at all. The equipment at the time was more than adequate to produce the images needed for the documentary and the filmmakers were there on location during many of these sequences, so why the reenactments?

There are two answers to this question. One would be that the filmmakers missed the events needed for the film and therefore recreated them. The other answer was simply that re-enactments were utilized for dramatic effect. And these were lessons that stemmed from fictional film techniques for at the core of the fictional film was its dramatic effect. Audiences going to see a fictional film did not care that it was staged, as they had become conditioned by this time to know real from fantasy.

But when you factor in staged dramatic effect into a documentary does it continue to be a documentary? And is it ethical to use such staged scenes? Also, the dynamic of the audience changes as well. For audiences are at a disadvantage because they hear the word ‘documentary’ or ‘actuality’ and therefore conclude that the images that they are about to see are in fact truth.

Jon Else in 2005 was interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and he is quoted as saying, “We all do re-enactment from time to time. The question raised here is whether it is appropriate to use re-enactment that the audience does not know is re-enactment.” (Siegel 2005)

As Else says the question isn’t the use of fictional techniques or re-enactments, but rather the context and presentation in which those fictional techniques are shown. When you use re-enactments it is vitally important to not confuse the audience into believing that the re-enactments are real footage taken in real time. This is without question unethical and preys upon the naivety of the audience who is pre-conditioned to believe truth due to the type of film that they are viewing.

In a 2011 article from Documentary Magazine writer Joseph Jon Lanthier wrote at length about the re-enactments in documentary films and spoke on the staged scenes in the documentary film The Thin Blue Line (1988) which utilized re-enactments to re-enforce the evidence of a man being wrongfully accused. Now he compared this film to the documentary film The Children’s March (2005). Lanthier states that the re-enactments in The Children’s March, “attracted loud disapproval for using re-created scenarios that were presented without disclaimer and digitally altered to look more archival.” (Lanthier, Spring 2011)

What we have here is the use of re-enactments filmed on vintage cameras as well as the use of over 500 extras dressed appropriately for the time period the documentary is setup in. Of course, these scenes alone would present no ethical issues. They are merely an interpretation based on testimony. The questions of ethics for this film came into play when these re-enactments were inter spliced with archival footage leaving the audience to believe all that they saw was in fact from the specific events of the documentary’s subject.

As stated earlier the use of fictional techniques in documentary films is often used to re-create a sequence of events that happened in the past where no cameras were present. Would one claim this to be unethical? Some could, but I would argue that if the structure of the re-enactment were taken from the individuals who lived through the events a staging or re-creation of those events is not unethical. However to play off of the disadvantage audiences have by being pre-conditioned in a certain way toward a particular type of movie is in fact unethical. And again as Else stated the question is not of the use of re-enactments or fictional techniques but rather the unethical way that they are presented to audiences as being factual and or archival.

For instance Robert Flaherty in Nanook of the North re-created the Inuit family dynamic by taking people from that culture and having them re-enact the lifestyle and culture of past generations. For some this is not seen as unethical, then for others it is. Again I make the argument that as a filmmaker one can take the testimonial accounts from those that were there and lived through those events or had first hand knowledge of said event and it is through that lens that re-enactments can be constructed without damning questions into the ethical nature of those reproductions.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog did this as well in his documentary film Little Dieter Needs to Fly in 1997. Herzog followed German-American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler back to Laos, which was the site of his imprisonment and torture after a plane crash during Vietnam. Following Dieter, Herzog and the pilot retraced the journey that the Vietnam veteran faced. Extras, natives of Laos, were hired to help re-enact certain scenes of the pilot’s torture with Dieter narrating. Werner Herzog did effectively make this story into a feature length fictional film some years later, but in response to his style of documentary Besty Mclane writes that Herzog wishes to, “put the audience back into a position where they can trust their eyes and ears again.” (Mclane 335) It is this statement as well as the Herzog’s desire to find a way to effectively use re-enactments in a way that is ethical and presents the truth for the audience.


Modern Documentary and Fictional and the Reconditioning of Culture

Fiction in the modern documentary has grown dramatically over the last several years. While re-enactments are nothing new to documentary films the style and way in which those re-enactments are presented are. The fictional re-creation of testimony in documentary films are becoming more and more like that of scripted fictional films. Often times drawing a very thin line between the two. In turn fictional films are beginning to cultivate certain aspects of documentary films in order to present the audience with an experience that tends to be more realistic. But with documentary films the hiring of actors and portraying the characters testimony in a very fictional way, that looks fictional and feels fictional is something fairly new.

Audiences today are also more open to this type of documentary. By using fictional techniques filmmakers are serving the viewer with a clearer picture of the subject matter while at the same time asserting to the viewer that they themselves as have clear and concise grasp of the subject as well. To highlight the reflective influence of fictional film on documentary and documentary on fictional I will use direct examples from recent films.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney made Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) about the rise and fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that ruined his career. Gibney did something in this film that was very interesting. Using a mode of fictional film in order to protect the identity of one of Spitzer’s liaisons Gibney hired actress Wrenn Schmidt to portray the call girl “Angelia”. In later interviews Gibney alluded to the fact that the reality of call girls is that once a request has been made the booker of the date informs the woman of the specifics of the client, the likes the dislikes. Then once they meet the woman immediately engages the client with conversation, which as Gibney says is a fiction. Here we see the use of fictional film techniques in an artful way to preserve the identity of the real life character, but to also point to fictional nature of the characters work.

In the documentaries The Arbor (2011) and The Imposter (2012) we see a strong fictional style of filmmaking intertwined with factual documentation. In The Arbor this is manifested through there not being a single true character shown on screen. Instead filmmaker Clio Barnard gained audio interviews from Dunbar’s children, relatives, friends as well as Dunbar herself. These audio interviews were then used as the audio track for actors to come in and lip-sync. The film was then shot in a very fictional cinematic style creating an experience that both informed and highly entertained and produced great dramatic effect. Then one-year later director Bart Layton filmed The Imposter, which told the story of con man Frederic Bourdin. Again the use of interview audio tracks was used to sync with scripted cinematic scenes. The only difference between this film and The Arbor was the fact that the entire film was not shot in this manner as it still retained traditional sit-down interviews.

The use of fictional cinematic techniques in these films allowed these films to carry that much more dramatic weight. Alone with out the re-enacted scenes the stories would work just fine and would be somewhat dramatic, but by adding these re-created scenes with the dialogue of the actual characters it provoked a deeper emotion to the films and brought about a clearer view but also a stronger tension that the documentary would not have had with only interviews and observational.

We are a society that longs for drama and since the advent of reality television and the historical documentary dramas that has only increased. Along with this our re-conditioning toward needing to see real-life in real-time has also changed. No longer do we need to completely desire to see a documentary that is all factual with no fictional form. Audiences are more equip in the modern era to understand the fictional sequences of a documentary film when presented as such, because audiences understand the dramatic motive behind it. They desire the realism but also welcome techniques that portray that realism in a more fictional way.

Now documentary films are not the only forms of film to have been heavily influenced. Feature fiction films have been greatly influenced by documentary films specifically in the realm of realism. Fictional films have never confused audiences because they were conditioned and still are conditioned to know that what they are seeing is a work of fiction and not realism. These lines began to blur with the release of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the claim of the use of found footage that told the story of three student filmmakers last days in the woods of Maryland. Now this was not the first film to use the found footage style, it was however the first to have a wide release and impact on the box office. Many horror and science fiction films moving forward have utilized this method to give the narrative more realism.

Also, from this point on filmmakers and production studios in Hollywood wanted and desired to emulate the realism that documentaries conveyed naturally. Now that audiences had become conditioned to seeing the gritty nature of documentary films the added realism within fiction films played well with audiences and at the box office.

We see this in such films as Steve Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) that is completely fictionalized but framed and shot using a camera usually reserved for documentary films, thus giving the film a look and overall feel of realism that was highlighted by the performances of the actors. We also see this style of framing and filmmaking in the feature films of Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) and Danny Boyles 28 Days Later (2002). Finally there is the work of Terrence Malick whose films often use a “Voice of God” narration that was popular within the documentary film. This is most evident in his feature film The Tree of Life (2011) that along with the previously mentioned films utilizes digital hand held cameras that are a staple of documentary film.

As stated earlier filmmakers used these formats to gain a grittier look that when played back for an audience it presents a deeper realism. Also what this is doing for the audience is it’s giving a somewhat ambiguous nature to the film and allowing the viewer to become more deeply entrenched in the narrative. The digital roaming camera also gives the audience the perspective of being right there amongst the action. In fact there is hardly a Hollywood feature film made today that doesn’t utilize the shaky “documentary cam” technique at some point within the narrative.

In the end the cross influence of documentary and fictional films is an overall good for both filmmakers and audiences. It will allow filmmakers the opportunity to explore the craft of filmmaking more deeply by trying to craft a fact or fiction film that not only entertains the audiences but allows just enough ambiguousness for the viewer to insert themselves into the story, thus causing a more engrossing experience.


Where we Came from and Where are we Going

As it has been presented in this thesis statement documentary films as well as fictional films were inspirations of not only technology but of each other. Also, that the use of fictional filmmaking techniques within documentaries has existed since the inception of the genre and only continue to expand in the future. Whether its re-creating an igloo because of logistics, or re-enacting a life story for dramatic effect these techniques help to engage the audience and in the end tell a story. And while the documentary film was in fact the first method of story telling with moving images, it has evolved as well as stayed the same.

The plain truth is it has always been the desire of man to tell a story whether that was in the preservation of history or just simply the act to entertain. Stories are rooted within our culture and within the art we create, as well as the films we craft.

All forms of art are reflections of influences and reactions to one another. These reflections eventually evolve into the forms of art merging with one another to the point where it becomes hard to distinguish them. A prime example of this is the introduction of the digital age and illustration and animation. Before the digital age all illustration and animation was done by hand on physical paper, but now with the rise of technology, paper is rarely used to craft either form of art. In fact traditional animation in its 2D form has all but been eliminated from the Box Office, while still existing in direct to video form it has been replaced in theaters by the technology driven 3D animation, which again merged the concept of experimental 3D artwork with the tradition of animation.

This same type merging is happening in both documentary and fiction film. However with these two forms of film one will not replace the other nor will merge into one singular film form but rather they will continue to be influenced by one another and the desires of the audience turning into better versions of their current state. It should be clear from the arguments proposed here that you could not have one without the other. Documentary would not exist if not for the technological breakthroughs of the late 19th century, and the fictional film would not exist if not inspired by this same technology and the use of it in a documentary or “actuality” form. Both were born from innovation and both have constantly influenced the other over the years.

In the end it is the desire of not only the filmmakers but the audience as well to push both forms of film forms into the current state. This is not only increasing the popularity of fictional films, which has always been there, but its also increasing the popularity of the documentary film to nearly the point of its greatest draw in the early years of film history. Again these influences are a positive for not only both forms of film but for documentary filmmakers in particular. The increased interest has shown that audiences of today want and desire realism, but are also fully accepting of fictional elements as long as it conveys a worthwhile story.



Wakeman, John. World Film Directors. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987. Print. pp. 747-765.

McLane, Betsy A. (26 April 2012) A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd Edition. Bloomsbury Academic.

Siegel, Robert. “Interview: Jon Else discusses controversy surrounding the Oscar-winning documentary “Mighty Times: The Children’s March”.” NPR All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 29 Mar. 2005. Radio.

Lanthier, Joseph Jon. “Do You Swear to Re-Enact the Truth? Dramatized Testimony in Documentary Film.” Documentary Magazine. Spring 2011. November 2013.

Roundhay Garden Scene. 1888. Louis Le Prince. Internet Archive.

Nanook of the North. 1922. Robert Flaherty. Pathe Exchange.

Drifters. 1929. John Grierson. Empire Marketing Board.

The March of Time. 1935-1951. Louis and Richard Rochemont. Time Inc.

The Thin Blue Line. 1988. Errol Morris. Miramax Films.

The Children’s March. 2004. Robert Houston. Southern Poverty Law Center and HBO.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly. 1997. Werner Herzog. Anchor Bay.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. 2010. Alex Gibney. Magnolia Pictures.

The Imposter. 2012. Bart Layton. Picturehouse Entertainment.

The Arbor. 2010. Clio Barnard. Artangel Media.

The Blair Witch Project. 1999. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez. Haxan Films.

The Girlfriend Experience. 2009. Steven Soderbergh. Magnolia Pictures.

Collateral. 2004. Michael Mann. Paramount Pictures.

28 Days Later. 2002. Danny Boyle. DNA Films.

Tree of Life. 2011. Terrence Malick. Fox Searchlight.