Unconventionally Conventional: Documentaries That Draw Inspiration From Genre Cinema

Man On Wire

As a lover of both genre cinema and documentary filmmaking, it’s no surprise that the combination of the two really hits my sweet spot. The marriage of these seemingly disparate worlds has become increasingly more common, giving documentary filmmakers an opportunity to experiment with the form and push the limits of non-fiction storytelling. This is a great way of bridging the gap between fiction and documentary filmmaking and working towards simply labeling them both as ‘movies’. That’s not to say there aren’t differences between the two. I love docs because they provide opportunities and insights that fiction films don’t (and vice-versa). In general terms, I think I can explain my love for the two as follows:

Fiction films are at their best when they engage me on a level at which I momentarily forget what I’m watching isn’t real. Documentary films are at their best when they engage me on a level at which I momentarily forget what I’m watching IS real.

This might seem problematic for some as many documentaries are specifically designed to illuminate certain realities in the world that shouldn’t be ignored. In these cases, applying an overtly cinematic aesthetic or drawing inspiration from genre cinema might not be appropriate. But when the opportunity arises, I love the idea of framing real events and real people within the constraints of genre. It’s a great reminder that reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, and even the craziest ‘true’ stories are always at the mercy of the editorial decisions of the filmmaker.

It might seem trivial or frivolous to draw such comparisons, but I think it’s a great way to introduce genre film fans to some great docs through some familiar reference points. We’ve already seen how documentary has influenced fiction — most evidently the horror genre, with the popularity of ‘found footage’ films — so let’s look at some examples of how genre has influenced documentary. I’ve listed a bunch of films below which I feel fit into specific genres or sub-genres. Some of these are fairly obvious while others might be a bit more of a stretch.

 

REVENGE FILM

THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON (1987)
Dir. Kazuo Hara

In Kazuo Hara’s ‘The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On’, a disgruntled Japanese WWII veteran takes justice into his own hands, dishing out punishment to the men he believes were involved in the unjust execution of fellow soldiers during their time fighting in New Guinea. The film is at times brutal, but also hilariously awkward as its main character, Kenzo Okuzaki, systematically tracks down his suspects and exacts revenge in the form of physical and verbal abuse. Kazuo Hara is a true provocateur, and his complex ‘anti-hero’ makes for an intense viewing experience that’s truly stranger than fiction.

 

SCIENCE FICTION

INTO ETERNITY (2010)
Dir. Michael Madsen

Michael Madsen’s ‘Into Eternity’ brilliantly combines an environmental issue — the long-term storage of hazardous nuclear waste — with a hypothetical, science fiction scenario that’s part Inconvenient Truth and part 2001: A Space Odyssey. Visually, ‘Into Eternity’ is rooted in a rich tradition of austere, hard science fiction cinema. The subject matter supposes what society might be like 100 thousand years from now — the approximate toxic lifespan of nuclear waste — and how we might warn future societies about the poisonous materials buried within the Earth. Imagining such future scenarios cleverly provides Madsen an opportunity to inject science-fiction concepts into a story that’s otherwise rooted in scientific fact. I absolutely loved the discussions surrounding possible future societies and how one might be able to communicate the dangers of the buried waste using only universal symbology. The inclusion of Kraftwerk on the soundtrack is a definite bonus.

 

POST-APOCALYPTIC

LESSONS OF DARKNESS (1992)
Dir. Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s stunningly beautiful ‘Lessons of Darkness’ recontextualizes images of post-Gulf War Kuwait, spinning an epic tale of “a planet in our solar system” facing a major catastrophe. Desert landscapes resemble a post-apocalyptic wasteland, shrouded by black smoke and illuminated by scattered plumes of fire. Contractors work at sealing off the oil wells lit ablaze by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Herzog describes the men as alien “creatures”, weaving an invented narrative throughout. They work at extinguishing the infernos only to become ‘seized by madness’, re-igniting the fires so that ‘they have something to extinguish again.’ It’s a haunting but absolutely magnificent documentary that seems somewhat under appreciated. To me, this is one of Herzog’s finest films. He also played with combining non-fiction with science fiction concepts in Fata Morgana (1971) and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005).

 

FANTASY

DARKON (2006)
Dir. Luke Meyer & Andrew Neel

Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer’s look at live action role playing (LARP’ing) makes use of the imaginary world of Darkon to indulge in some true fantasy filmmaking. When they’re not working in an office or selling coffee at Starbucks, these role playing hobbyists dress up in full fantasy garb, wielding foam swords and engaging in all out war over imaginary hexes of land. These battles are captured with a loving nod to the same cinematic techniques used in films like The Lord of the Rings. Swooping crane shots capture the action from above and high speed tracking shots follow these ‘warriors’ into battle. There’s even a sombre sequence featuring dark elves speaking in some form of elvish dialect which, hilariously, is subtitled.

 

CRIME FILM

MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) (2007)
Dir. Jason Kohn

I’ve talked about my love of Jason Kohn’s Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) many times before on this site. It’s a kinetic, stylish look at large scale corruption in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Kohn’s film is clearly inspired by genre cinema, incorporating cinematic flourishes that heighten the ‘bigger than life’ characters and circumstances presented in the film. The introduction of an anti-kidnapping squad plays out like a scene from Goodfellas, as a wandering steadicam shot introduces each member of the team. Kohn even manages to insert a car chase, making clever use of a driving class in which students learn how to evade potential kidnappers in their vehicles. They may be shooting paintballs rather than bullets, but the effect is still the same. Kohn has gone on record saying that he thinks of the film as a “non-fiction Robocop, depicting a very real, broken, and violent society.” Even the choice of shooting Manda Bala in a 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio says something about Kohn’s interest in elevating this material into something cinematic.

 

FILM NOIR

THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)
Dir. Errol Morris

Perhaps the most influential example of non-fiction genre-breeding, Errol Morris’ ‘The Thin Blue Line’ is a brilliant example of how a documentary can indulge in cinematic technique while still retaining its impact as a piece of investigative journalism. Morris’ use of stylized recreations is thematically sound, complementing the film’s questions of truth and perception and transforming the audience into armchair detectives. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky’s background in genre film makes him a daringly unique choice for this project. After The Thin Blue Line, he went on to work with Tim Burton on numerous films, including Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. Morris’ himself has called The Thin Blue Line “the first non-fiction film noir”, making this one of the greatest examples of documentary embracing the conventions of fiction filmmaking.

 

HEIST FILM

MAN ON WIRE(2008)
Dir. James Marsh

This is an easy one. James Marsh’s ‘Man on Wire’ was one of the first big docs that wore its genre influence on its sleeve, drawing comparisons between the cinematic recreations of Phillipe Petit’s rogue WTC wire walk and a Hollywood heist film. Watching Petit prepare for the stunt by assembling his team is like something straight out of Ocean’s 11 or Mission: Impossible. Marsh’s recreations are quite clearly referencing genre cinema, playing out in stark black and white and at times looking like an example of German Expressionism. It’s Petit’s enthusiasm in telling the tale that really sells the audience on this adventure. Even though the story took place years prior to the making of the film, you truly feel like it’s happening before your eyes.

 

ROMANTIC COMEDY

SHERMAN’S MARCH (1986)
Dir. Ross McElwee

Ross McElwee’s failed love life hijacks a film that was originally about “the lingering effects of Sherman’s march on the South.” Instead, the concept is used as a sort of framing device for his search for a nice girl. After being ditched by his girlfriend, McElwee’s camera acts as a chaperone on a series of dates — or interviews — with potential suitors. The result is something akin to self flagellation; or a Woody Allen film. McElwee’s neurosis is at the forefront in a film that’s fearlessly honest and sometimes awkwardly personal. The film’s subtitle, “A Meditation on the Possibility Of Romantic Love in the South During An Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation”, perfecty encapsulates McElwee’s dry, cynical sense of humour.

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