VIEWING A TREND. There is currently a strong trend of mixing the methods and vocabulary of fiction and documentary films. The Nordic Film & TV Fund recently invited the commissioning editors of the Nordic film institutes to a seminar in Copenhagen on hybrid film. Jakob Høgel, artistic director of New Danish Screen, spoke on his view of the trend, emphasising that hybrid films act as a necessary, living laboratory for what films can be and should be.
Hybrid films often raise ethical questions: Did the
filmmakers go too far in manipulating their unsuspecting characters and duping their gullible audiences?
Hybrid films also challenge the institutions that support and distribute film productions. Which fund should pay, when one box says 'Fiction' and the other says 'Documentary'? Can a documentary film festival like CPH:DOX reasonably give its best documentary award, as was the case in 2010, to a film like the Italian "Le Quatro Volte" which clearly is "mostly" fiction?
Karolina Lidin, documentary consultant at Nordic Film & TV Fund, opened the seminar in Copenhagen by paraphrasing Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of an intimately confessional six-volume work that is categorised as fiction:
"How much fiction does it take to depict reality truthfully?"
Starting with Sambo
The point of bringing together the Nordic film commissioners was, in part, to discuss how film organisations can openly embrace and accommodate the different genres and innovations.
As artistic director of the talent fund New Danish Screen, Jakob Høgel is in the privileged position that his fund's statement of purpose directly says that NDS should support and inspire the development of cinematic grammar and storytelling and ensure that filmmakers continually strive to push the boundaries and create new experiences for the audience. That leaves everything wide open and, indeed, NDS has supported a long line of genre-busting filmic experiments "The Ambassador" is just the most recent example.
Høgel, who has a degree in anthropology, reaches back in history to the story of Sambo to analyse the origin of the hybrid phenomenon.
"Hybrid means mixing and is most powerfully used about the mixing of races. An example of a racial hybrid is Sambo, which before the time of the children's book 'The Story of Little Black Sambo' meant a mix of black and Indian blood. For a long time, Sambos were considered a dangerous experiment with nature and something to be avoided. Later, the image reversed entirely and Sambos were seen as a possible solution, because Blacks were 'strong but lazy and difficult to discipline', while Indians were 'small and relatively weak but self-organising'".
"So the very idea of mixing often carries strong moral undertones, at first negative, later positive," Høgel says.
Fleaherty and Grierson Made Hybrids
While the hybrid trend has given way to a joy of mixing in the arthouse community, Høgel sees concern and scepticism in the world of film about mixing and creating 'impure' breeds.
"Documentarians have for a long time expressed fear and a sense of loss regarding fictional elements and attitudes creeping into documentaries. The sense has been that documentaries are losing their grip on
reality. Journalistic documentarians have tried to set up rules about what is allowed and what is not in order to maintain an idea of pure documentation. In fiction, the reluctance has been another: documentary elements have been considered low-grade, cheap pollution of artistic fiction."
But, says Høgel, the moral scruples about mixing rest on the myth that before there were two separate things, docs and fiction, and now they are all mixed up.
"This is just a myth. Fiction and docs have always related to each other, from the very earliest films on. In fact, it is only by having a dialogue that we have been able to define one thing as doc and another as fiction."
In that sense there is no before hybridity, Høgels argues, stating that the very films that we now use to define the documentary genre – such as the films of Flaherty and Grierson – would by our standards be called hybrid. In other words, the very definitions of the categories only make sense because there has been a battle between the two.
"Most films are made either as documentary or as
fiction, but it is the films in between that have made it possible to reach some agreement about what documentaries and fiction respectively are. Documentary films have always been interested in staging reality, and fiction films have always been obsessed with authenticity. My contention is that hybrid film is not a new thing, and it doesn't make sense to view it as a separate category or genre. Only by looking at specific films, and why they are made the way they are, does the term become meaningful," Høgel says.
While indicating that hybrid films have always existed, Høgel sees a number of reasons why the form is so prevalent today.
"Doc and fiction are getting closer: in budgets, in distribution, in the people working on the films. We
have had a period of broadcast monopolies, where investigative documentaries were a core value. Now that's giving way to broader distribution, and broadcasters see a market potential in hybrids. Audiences under 35 don't care whether they are watching documentary or fiction: they just want a cool experience – that is enlightening and entertaining."
Contracts with the Audience
Jakob Høgel sees four categories of hybrid film. His focus is on what a film does to an audience: What expectations does an audience bring to the film? What sense of a contract does the audience establish in the film? And, how can the audience work with what they experience in the film?
1. This is real – not!
"Documentaries that you watch thinking they are real until you realise that it's all a setup. Though the audience's experience is 'documentary', it is crafted as fiction. Some of the first mockumentaries were outright hoaxes. More recently, the picture has become more blurry – witness 'Exit through the Gift Shop' or 'I'm Still Here', where the uncertainty about what is real was part of the advance buzz."
2. I know that arts are made up (but they have an effect on what I see as real)
"The audience doesn't care about authenticity as long as the film is funny, embarrassing or exciting. Examples of this category include 'Borat' and now 'The Ambassador', where the protagonist acts a kind of catalyst. Like 'agent provocateurs', they expose and influence reality. The filmmakers perform an artistic intervention in reality.
3. This could be real – authentic fiction
"These films use devices that connote authenticity and often refer to a doc style, e.g., by using non-actors, real locations and imitating documentary camera work. A recent Danish example is the prison film 'R' by Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm, which was based on a real story, shot in a former prison and had a cast, apart from the main character, of real inmates and guards."
4. What is real?
"The films in the fourth category discuss authenticity in the actual fabric of the film, often in every single scene. An example is Birgitte Stærmose's 'Out of Love', where children from post-war Kosovo tell poignant stories about loss and hope in staged situations.
Both 'Out of Love' and 'The Ambassador' have been criticised for their handling of reality. Indeed, there has to be a very good reason for choosing a method that intervenes in reality and may have an effect on the people in the film. If you choose to employ a radical device, as many hybrid films do, there has to be a point. You should give the audience new insight and experiences."