Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, but both impulses certainly exert a powerful pull on the filmmaking instinct. With so many established narrative directors over the years turning their hand to documentaries, whether it’s “making of,” band documentaries, or passion projects that they use to create greater awareness of the issues that are closest to their hearts, it’s a well-trodden path. And while they’re treading that path, they get to wave at the men and women coming in the opposite direction: documentarians make the crossover into narrative just as frequently. This week’s release of “How I Live Now” (our review is here) from Kevin Macdonald is another example of how, for some directors, the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction is one they can criss-cross time and again throughout their careers—it’s a fiction film, but Macdonald’s been alternating between the formats evenly for the last decade or so.
Of course the storytelling instinct may be the same, even if the approach is necessarily different, but not every talent is as suited to the bigger budgets (mo’ money, mo’ problems) and more rigid production of features, as it is to the unpredictability and other frustrations of documentary filmmaking. Still others attempt to blur or eradicate that division altogether, knitting fictional elements like dramatic reconstructions or overtly manipulated imagery into their documentaries, and bringing realist elements of shooting style or even casting to their fictions. We’re taking this opportunity to examine ten directors who work or have worked in both formats to see what they bring to each, and how each impacts on the other.
The Scottish filmmaker comes from an impressive line of filmmakers: his grandfather was Emeric Pressburger, who with Michael Powell made classics like "A Matter Of Life & Death," "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus," while older brother Andrew is Danny Boyle's long-time producer on the likes of "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine." Macdonald made his first foray into documentary with a film about his grandfather, 1995's "The Making of an Englishman," his films reaching wider and wider audiences until he made his fiction debut with "The Last King of Scotland" in 2006. Macdonald hasn't yet left documentary behind, though: "Marley" was released only last year.
Notable Documentaries: Breathless survival tale "Touching the Void," with its hugely impressive dramatic reconstructions, was the one that launched Macdonald into Hollywood's orbit, but we prefer "One Day In September," a gripping, near-definitive retelling of the attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich games. Undoubtedly influential on Steven Spielberg's later "Munich," it sheds new light on that terrible day by impressively landing an interview with the surviving terrorist. But it's more than just an interview: Macdonald gives it the heft and zip of a thriller, and it rightly won the Documentary Oscar in 2000.
Notable Fiction Films: Macdonald's four fiction films to date (a fifth, "Black Sea," is coming next year) all have something to recommend them without quite proving to be exceptional. We're fonder than most of "State of Play," a decent, but flawed attempt to push the acclaimed BBC miniseries into two hours, which has a brace of fine performances, including Russell Crowe's best of the last decade. But his latest, "How I Live Now," might be Macdonald's best fiction film to date: an admirably unflinching and uncompromised adaptation of a post-apocalyptic young adult favorite that's closer to "Come & See" than "The Hunger Games."
Which Form Suits Him Better? Tough to say—Macdonald's best films are unquestionably his documentaries, but his more recent work in that form—“Life In a Day” and “Marley” have felt a bit insipid and half-hearted. Meanwhile, his fictional work is all flawed in one way or another, but he certainly seems to be finding his feet if “How I Live Now” is any indication. We’ll be keeping an eye on “Black Sea” carefully.
The justly revered Kieślowski is better known nowadays, and certainly abroad, for his later fiction work, especially that which teamed him with screenwriter (and current member of Polish parliament) Krzysztof Piesiewicz. But in fact the early part of his career is dotted with more than twenty short documentary films, interspersed only occasionally with fiction pieces. And unlike many other filmmakers who drift from one form to the other, Kieślowski, ever the philosopher, had a genuine, moral reason for turning away from documentary and embracing fiction: as time went on he became increasingly uncomfortable with what he saw as a documentarian’s “intrusion” into private lives. And as long as he remained interested in the inner life and morality of his subjects, he began to believe that it was only through fiction that he could truthfully portray that. Kieślowski died at the tragically early age of 54 in 1996, but remains one of the most influential and admired filmmakers of all time.
Notable Documentaries: We can’t say we’ve seen every one of them, and some of the earliest are difficult to track down, but from his first professional doc, the 17-minute “Factory,” it’s already astonishing how firm Kieślowski’s command of the medium is and how subtle and brilliant the result can be. It simply cross cuts between a largely impenetrable debate raging amongst the suits upstairs at a tractor factory about quotas and deliveries and blame, and the men at the coalface as they wordlessly go about the physical grunt work. But in this short time the film is everything: satirical, allegorical, angry and ironic. The same impulses show in many others: “Hospital” shows a streak of black humor as it pits stoic and selfless doctors and nurses against a backdrop of failing infrastructure; “I Was A Soldier” is a vehement anti-war statement as a group of veterans describe how they were blinded. But between the censoring of 1971’s “Workers ‘71” and the use of 1980’s “Station” by the police to try and find evidence against a potential murderer, Kieślowski became progressively more disenchanted with the form and its potential for truthfulness.
Notable Fiction Films: Few directors can claim anything like the consistent, always-getting-better brilliance that Kieślowski displayed, especially in his last five titles (or 14, depending on how you count TV mini-series “Decalogue”). So, after “Decalogue” came “The Double Life of Veronique” followed by the ‘Three Colors’ trilogy: ‘Blue,’ ‘White’ and ‘Red.’ All of these are vital pieces of work, and the brutal “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love” (based on a story from “Decalogue”) are scarcely a step behind them too.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Kieślowski’s documentary work is fascinating, but more so now that we can trace the evolution of the fiction filmmaker who became one of the greatest masters of the medium, and of whom so many of our most revered modern auteurs are in awe.