The fine line between fiction and reality
Six TIFF ‘17 directors discuss where the boundaries between narrative filmmaking and documentary become blurred in their own artistic practice
Documentary and narrative filmmaking have been distinguished as separate mediums for far too long. In 2017, the docu-fiction that often involves non-professional actors playing themselves in loosely stylized hybrids of both filmmaking practices has become the new Black. We asked six filmmakers from around the world who are making their narrative film debuts after working in the documentary medium to weigh in on how their background might have informed their work at TIFF ‘17 — whether it’s by drawing actively from their personal life, casting local actors at a plant, or instigating an unexpected romance between two men in the Ferentari ghetto of Bucharest. You can buy tickets for the TIFF ‘17 titles The Great Buddha+, Nina, 3/4, The Nothing Factory, Soldiers. Story From Ferentari, and Gutland now on the TIFF website.
How do you see the relationship between reality and fiction?
Huang Hsin-Yao (Director, The Great Buddha+): For me, reality and fiction coexist. There is no definite reality, or absolute fiction. If you combine 10 realistic stories and make it into one, the story would be fictional. But if a fictional story is told realistically, it is a reality. There is no boundary between reality and fiction.
Juraj Lehotsky, (Director, Nina): Fiction is a tool for our inner fantasies. It’s the way we create our own unique world. Reality is what exists all around us, but it is up to us to have our eyes open and discover it. It's a beautiful process when our unique discoveries are transferred into a film. I like when these two worlds overlap to create a new reality, which becomes true for an audience.
Ilian Metev (Director, 3/4): With every project, I doubt reality more and more. It seems subjective, ephemeral, and nearly impossible to capture. As filmmakers, we always manipulate reality, be it by our sheer presence or creative decisions. And yet, everything I do is based on something “real” that I’ve witnessed. I see myself as a collector of real moments, which produce some meaning when put together. For me, the only difference between documentary and fiction is that in documentary I feel like a patient hunter, whereas in fiction, [I’m] like a fisherman obsessed with different baits. In either case, I am interested in the undramatic air of the everyday — in involuntary behaviour, ambiguous words, and spontaneous looks.
Pedro Pinho (Director, The Nothing Factory): In my experience, reality in the sense of what I live, read, and see always feeds the storytelling. The films I've made were always a reaction to something I was living or watching, whether that’s a moment, a problem, a landscape, or an environment that pushed me towards the urgency of filming. I try to find a story that could help me to organize the mostly chaotic flow of impressions and states of mind which are inducted by a subject.
Govinda Van Maele (Director, Gutland): Fiction is just another way to deal with reality. In some ways, it’s no less truthful than documentary film. With fiction films, the ethical struggle with objectivity in documentary is removed and you’re free to deal with reality in a way that acknowledges the inherent subjectivity in any depiction of the outside world. I personally like to think there is no dividing line between fiction and documentary — or reality, for that matter. They flow into each other, and each has elements of the other. To me, filmmaking really gets exciting once you use a documentary approach and move it into the realm of fiction cinema.
How does this relationship impact your cinematic approach to storytelling, cinematography, performance, and the various elements of your craft?
Huang Hsin-Yao: The plots and characters in The Great Buddha+ have a prototype in real life. They are basically the epitome of what I have witnessed and experienced for the past 10, 15 years, whether it is the people I have met or the stories that I have heard. Having adapted these real people and true stories to create another story, it becomes a fiction. At the same time, I want to depict part of my current situations in Taiwan.
My storytelling is rustic and direct, with a simple structure. The performances are close to what those real people should be. Since I started making documentaries, the relationship between reality and fiction has affected me deeply. This questioning of “truth,” representation, and objectivity were a great learning process for me. I always feel that a documentary is an absolutely objective work. It is a true story told from its director’s own perception and point of view. When I ponder the reality and fiction of documentaries, I never have a definite answer. It is like discussing the origin of the universe, of life. For me, a documentary is a transformation of my thoughts made for the audience to feel and connect to.
Juraj Lehotsky: It is very important for me to speak about the world as it exists around us. At the same time, I love it when I discover and write something new. I am always taken by elements of reality when I glimpse them from a car window or on the street. The other day, I heard a voice of an unhappy mother from the window who was on the phone telling someone she's worried her about her son, that he might harm himself. The phone call continued, and I learned that the boy is older, he has a wife that he hurt, and she ran away from their apartment. A new story began in my head as a result of thinking about what could've happened. This is more or less the way how I come up with my stories.
Ilian Metev: At every stage of the process I repeatedly double-check and update the veracity of what is happening in front of me. The script is based on personal experiences and observations. Interestingly, two real experiences next to each other might produce something false. It might be that their sequence is unlikely or their respective tones do not match. Also, if you ask your actor to perform something real you’ve witnessed, but which goes against their character, once again the outcome is false. During filming we tried to create an atmosphere, a framework, where the actors would contribute with what felt right to them. We often gave them conflicting tasks, which they had to figure out how to solve themselves. Hence, the film became something more than what was in the script.
Pedro Pinho: My films tend to be shaped by confrontation with a set amount of places and people. By being able to include and absorb the gestures, dialogues, looks, and mishaps that are produced by my presence and that of the camera amongst the characters, I can achieve an impression of truth and sophistication of the narrative I could never get to invent myself. In my first film, Bab Sebta, I've realized how discomfort was some kind of a key to filming people. If I can get to assume and manage discomfort in the duration of a shot, you can capture a very dense material. This is a very simple principle, but is central to my cinematic approach.
Govinda Van Maele: What I love most in the approach of documentary cinema is being at the mercy of the universe. One has to always stay open and adaptive; the film only reveals itself to you as you’re making it. I like to take some of that mentality into my fiction filmmaking as well. I love not knowing where the script will take me when I start writing. I know that at a certain point my subconscious will take over, and that’s when the story really takes shape. I love the casting process, especially in regards to non-professional actors, when unforeseeable possibilities are opened up that might alter the direction you thought you were heading in. The same goes for the team you’re working with. I like to embrace the individuality of the people behind the camera, instead of forcing them at all cost to adapt to what I have in mind. I’m sure this is how most filmmakers work anyway, but to me they are elements I know from documentary filmmaking: where the emphasis is not completely put on planning alone, but where a certain element of chance is embraced. The importance, then, is to find the right balance between planning and remaining open to whatever might happen.
Can you describe the specific relationship between reality and fiction in your film at TIFF?
Huang Hsin-Yao: The plot in my film comes from what I experienced, encountered, or heard of. Every character has a prototype. For example, Sugar Apple is actually a mute in the village that I lived in. He would ride a bicycle and help with other people’s farming. I am very curious about him. No one knows about his past, and no one knows what his future will be. So is this character in the film a representation of a real person? I do not really think so. I think many true stories get integrated into this character; then he becomes a fictional character, while also portraying a real person in the current Taiwanese society. He is fictional, but he is also real.
Juraj Lehotsky: Nina is a fiction film, and the story is composed of my feelings and experiences. Together with my co-writer Marek Lečšák, we based it on the memories of our own childhood. We tried to go back to what was important for us at the time when we were kids. The feelings we had abstracted were almost subconscious, and we wanted the character of Nina to experience that same type of emotion. Although we are now both parents, I wanted to take real feelings and transfer them into my characters, so they would feel real and true.
Ilian Metev: Just like in real life, the Mila in the film is preparing for an audition in Germany, Todor is an astrophysicist, and Niki is a school boy. Many of the spaces and people we show in the film were familiar to the actors, but their family relationships were something new we created together. I never showed the actors the script, and they never had to learn any lines. For a year prior to shooting, we worked with them in weekly workshops. The aims of those workshops were to get them to know each other and to build common memories. They would make pancakes together, go for a bike ride, talk about their first loves, or argue about their shortcomings. Those workshops formed the basis to the film, and because of them we developed an approach. Some takes would last for up to a few hours.
Ivana Mladenovic (Director, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari): Before Soldiers, I directed a feature-length documentary called Turn Off the Lights, which followed three young men freshly released from prison. Soldiers is based on the book with the same title that is already a cult novel in Romania. I knew right away I wanted to turn it into a film since it dealt with topics that were similar to the ones I’d been researching while working on my documentary.
My biggest challenge was to find a way to direct non-professional actors and leave some room for an unexpected factor in the performances. When making a documentary, there is an element of surprise at every turn, whereas in making a fiction film, I had to get used to following an actual script. Luckily, the people I chose were so unpredictable that they actually brought life into the film. I especially loved the moments during the shoot when I felt that I no longer needed a script.
Pedro Pinho: The idea for The Nothing Factory was sparkled by an entirely fictional object. It was a theatre piece for children and the will of an old Portuguese film director who wanted to adapt it to film. He invited me to write the script, and somehow, he had to drop out of the project and I had to assume the direction of it. I rewrote everything to relate it to my experiences living in Lisbon, which was at the time in economic crisis. We plunged into the realities of an industrial zone in the northern suburbs of Lisbon that was about to be dismantled and shot the film there. From our initial confrontation with the unemployed factory workers that we cast in the film, we realized what we were dealing with was so central to our lives as well — far beyond the context of the crisis. At the same time, we had to be fair and we didn't want to reduce people’s experiences to a straight fiction. In making the film, I feel like we were observing an invitation to a collective reflection about the impotency we all felt at that time and the possibilities to overcome it.
Govinda Van Maele: Gutland is based on my childhood memories growing up in rural Luxembourg. It’s not based on particular stories or characters I remember, but more on the perception you have of the world as a child when most things are still unknown and mysterious, both beautiful and profoundly unsettling. We intentionally removed certain modern elements (like the agriculture), so the film is slightly anachronistic. There is an avoidance of smart phones, for instance. On the other hand, we preserved a documentary feel to many scenes to create something in between fiction and reality. It’s a little like the sensation of dreaming, which in my experience is both hyperrealistic and completely fantastical. I tried to accumulate more surreal elements into the film as it goes along until the naturalism at the beginning becomes completely upstaged by a more expressionist style.
How do you hope your film will resonate with your audience?
Huang Hsin-Yao: I hope The Great Buddha+ can not only be a film an audience in Taiwan can relate to, but also build a bridge to connect with other parts of the world. For me, films are a way to understand the world. The purpose of making this film was not to change Taiwan, but I hope the audience can have deeper thoughts about the country’s politics, societies, and interpersonal relationships. I do not expect any kind of reaction from the audience. I can’t tell them what to think or feel about the film because, unlike textbooks, there is no definite answer.
Juraj Lehotsky: I am truly happy to bring a Slovak film with a universal story into the world. I am very interested in how people outside Slovakia or Europe will understand it. I hope this film could help at least one “lost” child with a similar story to Nina's.
Ilian Metev: I hope people will relate to it. I believe that a film is most stimulating when you leave the spectator enough space. As a filmmaker, I provide merely impulses.
Ivana Mladenovic: Soldiers has to be, first and foremost, a story about love. Then, as its failure becomes imminent, a fable about guilt. The conflict of the film shows what happens when the world of the intellectual bourgeoisie living in the centre and the poor world of the outcasts in Ferentari collide. The relationship between Adi and Alberto is a meeting of two desperate people: one made so by loneliness and the other by the precariousness of a life without freedom. The feelings building between them come from a very basic range of emotions: fear of abandonment, distrust, the need for power, and emotional security.
Pedro Pinho: I hope the film reaches audiences far from the Portuguese reality of that period, as it is built upon a common problem. It’s absurd that we still structure a life and a society centred in a conception of work that’s been the same since the 19th century. The dysfunctions and perversions that are created by that fact are being felt in this moment by every one of us.
Govinda Van Maele: I hope the audience will accept to let go and follow the film where it takes them, all the way down the rabbit hole. It’s a local and personal film, one that’s very specific to the country it comes from. My experience is that distance, being removed from something, often makes you see things clearer. In that regard, I’m really excited to see how an audience halfway around the world will perceive the film.