Is Documentary Film Entering Its “Creative Nonfiction” Phase?


Creative nonfiction is a goofy term referring to true stories that use literary techniques — beautiful, polished sentences, perhaps some playful narrative games, etc. — in order to share the story in a different fashion than straightforward journalism. But, frankly, it’s one of those terms that came up because colleges needed another category of writing to charge young people for the privilege of learning, in addition to mere “journalism.”

And in The New York Times, writer Larry Rohan makes the argument that documentaries, long the staid, journalistic brother to the wild imaginings of feature films, are also at the point where they’re chafing at form and function, breaking free from straightforward journalism and into something different and wilder. This change is notable because the artists who have made the documentaries that shaped the genre — the Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman, Ken Burns, to name a few — generally work in either a verité or journalistic mode.

Some of the change has come because documentaries have discovered the reenactment, like they just watched Unsolved Mysteries, or a host of docu-entertainment from the ’80s. This playfulness with genre does have an official Wikipedia page — docufiction — but perhaps it’s time for something like “Creative Documentaries”… or “Stackcore,” if we want to name it after original Unsolved Mysteries host Robert Stack. But the idea of reenactments, and how that sort of Hamlet-esque revision of history can get at real truths behind the play-acting, has broken something open in some of the best documentaries from last year, from the devastating The Act of Killing to Sarah Polley’s brilliant Stories We Tell. (Of course, the Best Documentary Oscar went to Morgan Neville’s nearly classical-in-form backup singers documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom.)

Rohter goes as far as to suggest that regarding the Oscar snub for Stories We Tell — one of the best-reviewed films of the year and a work that transcended its documentary category to be nominated for awards from the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild — a lot of it had to do with Polley’s use of reenactment. It’s not revealed until the end of the film, which, in its canny structure, turns storytelling and why we do it in and around on itself, like an ouroboros, but to the wrong pair of eyes, well, it could have been seen as a gotcha! moment, depending on your naïve belief in documentary methods as “truth” in order to create an effect and feelings.

Dennis Lim, the programmer for the upcoming documentary-themed film festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Art of the Real, notes: “We’ve come to think of documentary and fiction as very distinct forms, but the line isn’t as clear-cut as we have been conditioned to think. There’s a lot of work that falls in between.”

This playfulness with form has made the genre of documentary livelier, and the results have been good for the “artistry” of the form — after all, many of the best documentaries of the year are the sort of stories that stick with an audience and are made to linger. There’s something to be said for that kind of art. But maybe it’s time for documentary film to officially enter its creative nonfiction phase, with a new, silly catch-all term that shows the lack of boundaries within something as seemingly solid as the truth.