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10 Notable Filmmakers Who Work In Both Documentary & Fiction

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 7, 2013 1:31 PM
9 Comments
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James Marsh's "Man on Wire"

James Marsh
Not as big a name as some on this list, Marsh has been doing some sterling work in both the fictional and non-fictional worlds for a decade or so. Starting out as an editor, then on some arts documentaries for the BBC (Marvin Gaye doc "Troubleman" is particularly worth a watch), Marsh moved into documentary features with 1999's "Wisconsin Death Trip," and made his feature debut six years later with "The King."
Notable Documentaries: The eerie, atmospheric "Wisconsin Death Trip," a beguiling mix of drama and documentary, is quite remarkable and deeply underrated, but his greatest success in the form came with 2008's "Man On Wire." The rare kind of doc that's genuinely cinematic, it's a thrilling, moving and brilliantly made piece of work, and was a worthy Oscar winner in 2009. 2011's "Project Nim" isn't quite as good, but it's still very strong.
Notable Fiction Films: Marsh's fiction debut, Southern Gothic tragedy "The King," starring Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt and Paul Dano, was divisively received when it premiered at Cannes in 2005, and went unnoticed by most audiences, but it's well worth seeking out. A few years later, Marsh would direct the second (and to this writer's mind, the strongest) of the "Red Riding" trilogy, and followed it up last year with the sterling IRA thriller "Shadow Dancer." Like Macdonald, he arguably hasn't knocked one out the park yet, but it may only be a matter of time—perhaps on Stephen Hawking biopic "Theory Of Everything," which shoots soon with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Which Form Suits Him Better? His work across the two forms is very different, but up to now, the documentary's proved more consistent in quality. That said, he's straddled the two worlds nicely so far.

Claire Denis
It’s rare that an auteur arrives on the scene fully formed from their debut, but that’s pretty much what happened when Claire Denis, prior to that an assistant/second unit director to people like Wim Wenders, Costa Gavras and Jim Jarmusch, made her first film, the brilliant and beautiful “Chocolat.” Setting the enigmatic and slightly dreamlike tone that a lot of her films embody, since then Denis has carved out a small but immensely impressive body of work, often featuring her recurring motifs of colonialism, the immigrant experience and outsider-ness, especially as it pertains to her country of birth, France. While she reportedly does not consider herself a political filmmaker (and her films are too highly individual to be really be regarded as such) most of her work is socially engaged and profoundly concerned with the issue of cultural perspective, often heightened by the extraordinary power of her imagery.
Notable Documentaries: Denis has only made three feature-length documentaries (we're counting the two parts of 'Jacques Rivette' as one), of which the first, “Man No Run,” in which she follows Cameroonian band Les Tetes Brulees (whom she met while filming “Chocolat”) on their first tour of France, is very hard to track down. “Jacques Rivette, The Nightwatchman,” which was commissioned for French TV, is a fascinating, meandering conversation between New Wave filmmaker Rivette (“Celine and Julie Go Boating,” “Out 1,” “The Nun”) and Cahiers du Cinema critic Serge Daney. And, best of all 2005’s “Vers Mathilde” is a beautiful and oddly reflexive film about the creative process of dancer and choreographer Mathilde Monnier.
Notable Fiction Films: Aside from “Chocolat,” Denis’ most celebrated films are “Beau Travail,” “White Material” and “35 Shots of Rum” with her forays into more thrillerish territory with “Trouble Every Day” and this year’s “Bastards” meeting a much more mixed reception.
Which Format Suits Her Better? Undoubtedly Denis is a fiction filmmaker first and foremost, though a little like Agnes Varda, she incorporates elements of social realism into her fiction work in a way that suggests a more porous divide between the two. And “Vers Mathilde,” a fascinating document of dedication, creativity and the sheer beauty of movement, has moments that are among the most Denis-iest we’ve seen, with her camera coolly worshipping the wordless dance sequences, all set to a haunting, pulsating P.J. Harvey score.

"Aguirre: the Wrath of God"

Werner Herzog
Though his career has been going on for nearly fifty years, German maverick Werner Herzog has had something of a revival in the last decade, becoming a cult figure, to the extent that he even played the villain in Tom Cruise blockbuster "Jack Reacher." But all the jokes and oddities don't overshadow that Herzog has had one of the most prolific and consistently fascinating runs in contemporary cinema, and he's flitted between documentary and feature consistently since the 1960s.
Notable Documentaries: Though we can't claim to have seen every non-fiction film that Herzog's made, it's his documentary work of the last couple of decades that's the best regarded (though early fare like "The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner" and "Ballad Of The Little Soldier" are worth checking out too). From "Little Dieter Needs To Fly," which inspired Herzog's fictional retelling "Rescue Dawn," to the powerful death row documentary "Into The Abyss" and the TV follow-up series "On Death Row," via surprise hit 'Grizzly Man" and the impressive 3D "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams," the work has been consistently rich, though our favorite might be "My Best Fiend," his touching tribute to frequent collaborator/adversary Klaus Kinski.
Notable Fiction Films: And although Herzog's made some recent gems too, only a fool would consider the very best of his work to be outside his collaborations with Kinski (Though "The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser," in the same period but without Kinski, is right up there too). The pick of the bunch might vary depending on mood—"Aguirre: The Wrath Of God," "Nosferatu" and "Fitzcarraldo" could all stake their claim easily. But as a body of work, there's no doubt that Herzog was at his best when Kinski was around.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Depends on which period of Herzog we're talking about. If we're discussing the Herzog of the 1960s and 1970s, his collaborations with Kinski easily outshine his documentary output. If we're discussing present day Herzog, his documentaries easily feel like his more significant work (and, to be honest, where his heart is these days).

Agnès Varda
Often dubbed the “mother of the New Wave,” Agnès Varda’s early career is remarkable for how she came onto the scene in 1955 with her first fiction feature, “La Pointe Courte,” and in it, demonstrated a visual flair (she was a photographer) and a unique melding of storytelling, philosophy and docu-realism that was almost shockingly fully developed for a novice. Throughout her career she shifted between documentary and fiction films, but all of her films to a certain extent synthesize elements of both, giving her one of the most highly individual and mercurial of filmographies, consistent only in its high quality, its often exquisite compositions and its tendency, at every turn, to surprise.
Notable Documentaries: Varda’s first doc, the short “Du côté de la côte,” is again a terrific example of just what a cinematic savant the director seems to have been from the beginning—ostensibly simply a travelogue about the south of France, it’s elevated by Varda’s gorgeous, vibrant photography and by the brittle and often sarcastic voiceover narration, by a man and a woman. She also made docs on subjects as diverse as the Black Panthers, the widows on a remote island (this after she herself was widowed following the death of her husband, Jacques Demy), and Cuba in the early '60s. But it is her later feature documentaries, like “The Gleaners and I” about the subculture of impoverished ‘gleaners’ who scour harvested fields for what scraps may remain, “Cinevardaphoto” which is a trilogy of films about photography, and the kind of irresistible “The Beaches of Agnes,” which is a playful autobiography of sorts, that are arguably her most noteworthy.
Notable Fiction Films: ”La Pointe Courte” is a stunning debut, and 1985’s ”Vagabond” is a sombre feminist touchstone, but Varda’s greatest legacy is “Cleo From 5 to 7,” the real-time story of 90 minutes in a young singer’s life as she awaits the results of a biopsy. It has taken a while for ‘Cleo’ to earn its deserved place as one of the finest of the New Wave films, but Varda’s (ongoing) reassessment in recent years has meant it’s gradually finding the wider audience it deserves.
Which Form Suits Her BetterMore than elsewhere on this list, the dichotomy feels like a false one, as with her very first film, Varda showed a sensibility, which would continue throughout her career, that combined documentary and fiction formats in a way that didn’t just root her fictions in reality, but also lent a heightened, avant-garde aspect to her documentaries. However as a shorthand it appears that, rather like Herzog’s trajectory, Varda has worked more in the documentary arena in the last decade or so, often placing herself at the center of the films with terrifically mischievous results. So while the drama ‘Cleo’ will remain the keystone of her career, we have to say that we enjoy her documentaries immensely, in which she often lets loose a puckish sense of humor that is largely absent from her more serious-minded fictions.

This is a short, clearly non-definitive selection of ten filmmakers who work in both formats, but there are many others we can mention: Martin Scorsese has something of a parallel career as a music and film documentarian, and esteemed French director Louis Malle made some wonderful contributions to the documentary world, especially those set in India. Speaking of India, Mira Nair, pre-"Salaam Bombay," directed several eye-opening TV documentaries on different aspects of Indian society, the Dardennes brothers honed their realist eye for two decades in documentary before starting on narrative films, while Michelangelo Antonioni (you can check our recent Essentials piece on him here) was another filmmaker who clearly found a certain realism in documentary that he then took with him to fiction filmmaking.

We did loosely rule out (for now) those filmmakers who only have one film in either or both formats, so for example Bennett Miller, Todd Phillips, and Sarah Polley all only have one doc ("The Cruise," rock doc "Hated: GG Alin and The Murder Brothers" and the great "Stories We Tell," respectively), where Clio Barnard and Andrew Jarecki have just one of each (hybrid "The Arbor" and the terrific "Capturing the Friedmans" being the docs). Steven Soderbergh worked mostly with Spalding Gray in documentary format, "Spellbound" 's Jeffrey Blitz has one feature but now works mainly in TV, Derek Cianfrance has some music documentary TV credits too … there really are too many to list, but please feel free to shout out any examples you'd like to read more about. It's a subject we're keenly interested in, and with one of our very favorite documentarians (and kinda favorite humans, really) Errol Morris returning to narrative filmmaking after the largely forgotten "Dark Wind" with the Naomi Watts-starring "Holland Michigan," we'll hopefully have an excuse to revisit the topic soon.-- Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton

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9 Comments

  • Leo Aiyobe | January 31, 2014 9:09 PMReply

    Hi,
    I have a controversial story book I would like to make into film. They are in two parts, the first part talked about a cancer patient and the second talked about uncontrollable rape in South Africa.
    Regard

  • manfredi buonomo | November 26, 2013 12:11 AMReply

    How in the earth is it possible to write about Herzog without mentioning his masterpiece Lektionen in Finsternis ("Lessons of Darkness") or the Acadamy Award nominated "Encounters at the End of the World "?
    Not one word on "Signs of Life"?
    Did you really watch his movies and documentaries?
    I'm speechless,
    Manfredi

  • the sneering (homo-phobic) snob | November 24, 2013 4:44 PMReply

    What i like most about Werner Herzog is the way the geezer positively exudes rampaging heterosexuality.

  • Calvin | November 12, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    Shohei Imamura has to be by far the most notable omission from this list. He twice won the Palme d'Or for his fictional works but his documentaries are arguably just as good.

  • G.T.O. | November 8, 2013 1:28 PMReply

    Martin Scorsese

  • Daniel Hardy | November 7, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    JONATHAN DEMME!!!!

  • McKenzie | November 7, 2013 4:48 PMReply

    Michael Apted?

  • James | November 7, 2013 3:55 PMReply

    Michael Winterbottom has made a few straight documentaries like The Shock Doctrine, but most interesting are his docudramas - In This World and Road To Guantanamo.

    In This World is a fascinating, fictionalized documentary, in which he hired real Afghan refugees, then proceeded to make a film of them crossing from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey to Italy to France to the UK. They cross illegally in the film, but they were actually moving legally, the producers negotiated all the border crossings beforehand.

    Guantanamo is a somewhat more troubling piece, as the subjects of the film, who said they were completely innocent of the charges against them, were revealed later to have likely not been telling the whole truth. Still, it's a beautifully realized docudrama recreation a la Paul Greengrass.

  • wes | November 7, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    Bela Tarr?

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