Nonfiction not non-fiction (not yet)
Dara Waldron’s 2018 book New Nonfiction Film is an important contribution to the study of documentary as an art form; specifically with regards to the form’s relationship to truth and fiction. In a world of fast-paced technological developments, our view of film has become a bit blurry as forms bleed into one another and borders collapse. It has become increasingly necessary to distinguish emerging forms from one another to make sense of this dizzying media swirl, a term coined by scholar Carol Vernallis.
It is no different in the world of documentary cinema, where filmmakers have been experimenting with its form since the advent of moving pictures. The term nonfiction has often been understood as interchangeable with documentary, however Waldron identifies the term nonfiction as a distinct category of filmmaking that should be understood on its own terms. Nonfiction is a form that occupies a liminal space between fact and fiction, or as Waldron puts it, between earth and world. All documentaries have some relationship to fiction, and so this should not necessarily place nonfiction in a distinct category. However Waldron identifies an engagement with the very ontology of film which he calls a “speculative treatment of subjectivity,” using Grierson’s framework of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality” as a point of departure. While even fictional cinema engages in some representation of the actual, documentary in particular comes with an expectation of presenting the world as it is, something that Waldron attributes to the cinéma vérité movement. Waldron argues that documentary has always had a relationship to the art world, and using the films of Ben Rivers and Ben Russel, Abbas Kiarostami, John Akomfrah, Chantal Akerman and others, he outlines the new nonfiction film as a form of documentary that deserves its own category, in the unique ways these films explore truth, fiction and subjectivity.
Waldron’s inspiration for New Nonfiction Film came from a discussion following a viewing of Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’ collaborative film A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (2013). Russell and Rivers’ film follows American musician and artist Robert A.A. Lowe (who performs under the moniker Lichens) as he wanders throughout the Northern European countryside.
The film has been described as a “fictitious doc” and a “docu-fictional” as the film explores the boundaries of character and subjectivity in documentary. Lowe plays himself, however doesn’t speak much throughout the film and is not referred to by name. Russell and Rivers use the Bressonian casting method of the modèle (the casting of non-actors in fictional roles) however in this instance Lowe is a modèle of himself, somewhere between character and subject. Waldron names this “self-as-modele” methodology as one of the cornerstones of the new nonfiction film. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is not an observational documentary in that the scenes have been staged, however Lowe is on screen as himself doing “things he normally does.” Thus there is a deliberate rift between fact and fiction employed by the filmmakers. The film follows Lowe as he tries to integrate into an autonomous commune in Estonia but then leaves to live in the woods in isolation. He struggles in this solitary mode, leaves nature and ends up back in the city playing black metal, in the film’s riveting final act. Waldron identifies a utopian impulse in A Spell To Ward off The Darkness and other films by Rivers, such as Two Years at Sea (2011), which is similar in approach and aesthetic.
Two Years at Sea has been described by the Guardian as a character study where “little happens, nothing is explained.” The feature film, somewhere between documentary and fiction, follows its character Jake Williams, a recluse living in the Scottish countryside as he goes about his daily activities, in a fantasy of isolation (Williams is playing an “exaggerated” version of himself.) While Russel’s “slow cinema” has frustrated some critics, Waldron argues that the lack of information about Williams, as well as a lack of story in the film’s narrative, further inscribe self-as-modèle methodology, as Williams’ representation and image is thus imbued with an open semiotic status. Williams’ lifestyle can be seen to emulate a kind of post-apocalyptic future, an unreachable (even for Williams) utopia, or both. Waldron discusses the new nonfiction film and its relationship to the concept of utopia and dystopia, drawing on Levitas’ utopia as the erosion of desire, symptomatic of totalitarianism. Citing Arendt, Waldron writes about totalitarianism as the erasure of subjectivity, and this is of interest to the ways in which subjectivity is played with in the new nonfiction film.
Waldron places these films within a broader context of a return to utopia and dystopia in contemporary art. He argues that the new nonfiction film should be read in this way, and in chapter 3 cites the work of John Akomfrah, a celebrated filmmaker and artist whose work has been revered in both art and documentary circles. Waldron’s interest in Akomfrah’s work has to do with the fictive with regards to the documentary subject, and as the “energy of a promise to a future.” Akomfrah’s work is also concerned with the utopian, and the potential of the archive to challenge dominant narratives, whilst traversing both the past and the future. Waldron outlines how in Handsworth Songs (1986) and in The Stuart Hall Project (2013) Akomfrah reworks archive into an alternative “report” of important events (in the case of Handsworth this was a protest that took place in Birmingham’s Handsworth district and the police violence that followed) using BBC footage and remixing it to reclaim the subjectivity of black Britons, and to subvert the notion of time itself. While Akomfrah’s form and aesthetic is markedly different to Russel and Rivers, Waldron cites his “poetic” remixing of archive and his positioning in the art world as evidence of a new form of nonfiction, apart from documentary as it is most commonly understood.
In a chapter on the work of the Iranian New Wave auteur, Abbas Kiarostami, Waldron outlines the “roots” of the new nonfiction film. Despite Kiarostami not considering his work to be documentary in nature, there is what Waldron calls an unmistakable documentary impulse in his work. Perhaps the most clear example of new nonfiction in Kiarostami’s ouvre is Close-Up (1990), a film about Hossein Sabzian, an unemployed printer who pretended to be a well known Iranian filmmaker to scam people out of money. Kiarostami set out to make a film about Sabzian’s trial, and in the process of filming him in jail and attending the trial, became an active participant. Like in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness and Two Years at Sea, Sabzian plays himself on screen – the self-as-modèle concept as spoken about throughout the book. Waldron argues that Close-Up is a collaboration between Sabzian and Kiarostami, who worked together to make a film about “suffering, the desire to be somebody else, and the morality of art.” The film combines actuality footage with “co-scripted” events and reenactments, actively engaging with and subverting documentary conventions. The film thus sits somewhere in the border between documentary and fiction, in a space completely of its own.
In the second half of the book Waldron goes beyond Kiarostami to reflect on the work of Irish filmmaker Pat Collins, British filmmaker Gideon Koppel and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, whose work traverses many genres, including French New Wave, neorealism and minimalism. Like in the work of Russel, her films are slow, and nothing much happens. Her film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is about a widowed housewife who turns to prostitution in order to get by. While this description may seem racy, the film features long scenes of domestic life in real time.
The way these are filmed, Waldron states, make it difficult to distinguish whether these are documentary scenes of everyday life, or a fiction that has no direct relationship to the actual. Akerman is acutely aware of the border between fiction and documentary and creates her work there, or as Waldron puts it, from the margins. While the lineup of films and filmmakers is formidable, one can’t help but feel more works by women could have been added in this study of nonfiction film. Perhaps in later works Waldron might consider the work of a filmmaker like Chloe Zao.
I would assert that a feminist reading of the liminal space identified by Waldron would open up pathways and avenues that could take this already comprehensive book to a more holistic level.
In conclusion, we may wonder if this new category of “new nonfiction” is necessary – wouldn’t it suffice to call these works documentary, with some fictive elements? I would argue that in today’s online streaming landscape the word documentary has come to mean a very particular kind of film. We tend to think of documentary as reality as it is; “big picture films” that are highly expository in nature and solve the most urgent issues of our time. Even the incredibly subjective and insular My Octopus Teacher seeks to bridge the divide between “man” and “nature,” one free dive at a time. Documentary in a post-truth world paradoxically carries a very heavy expectation of the actual, with minimal alteration and intervention (although we know this notion to be a fallacy.) Waldron’s conceptualisation of the new nonfiction (as opposed to non-fiction) could then be a space where documentary filmmakers are free to create without the baggage of these expectations. However, perhaps this assertion itself reflects a utopia that can never be fully realised, at least not in the present. In the poetic words of Waldron, “nonfiction emboldens a not yet: cultivating a world both real and of the cinema. In other words, nonfiction is a ‘rift’ or crack, which is also a non-place.”