Real Fiction – Blurring Lines Between Documentary and Fiction

By David Balfour

mans-new-best-friend-jamie-jay-johnson-1.jpgMan’s New Best Friend: A Robodogumentary, 2006

A personal reflection

Today, filmmakers of my generation have no qualms about using the conventions of any media in any way that we want. The result is an emerging new genre of films that interweaves elements from traditional fiction and documentary films – creating a diverse body of work that ranges in form, subject, and mood from Tarnation to American Splendour. For convenience, these developments can best be called ‘real fiction’ or ‘true/false cinema’. At heart they all share a desire to express something personal and a concern with what is true and what is false.

While at the NFTS, one film I worked on allowed me to discover the joys and pitfalls that can result when you attempt to blur the line between fiction and documentary. Man’s New Best Friend: A Robodogumentary is a film about people who have robot dogs as pets. In the film, one of the main characters was a fictional amalgamation of research and interviews with real robot dog owners.

The film explores how much space in the human heart there is for a machine. We wanted the film to reflect the experience of having a robot dog- that is, making the audience love the unreal. We used the fictional character because he got us closest to what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. But it presented problems, particularly in managing the audiences’ expectations.

Whether you choose to confront, confuse or even exploit audiences’ expectations is for me a most important element of artistic choice. While it is generally accepted that fiction can be constructed to be like documentary (what is often called the mockumentary), many audiences feel uncomfortable when documentary incorporates elements of fiction. Documentaries have the appearance of being genuine. But, of course, the appearance of truthfulness does not guarantee it. People should know better; but it seems they don’t.

mans-new-best-friend-jamie-jay-johnson.jpgMan’s New Best Friend: A Robodogumentary, 2006

A common criticism of Man’s New Best Friend is that many people felt cheated when they realised a character they empathised with was fake. There was a debate about whether it was right to reveal that the character was fake, or whether it was better to ‘hide our dirty knickers’. It is important to the overall understanding of the film that we were honest about what we did. So we revealed our conceit in a playful and humorous manner- which works for the most part. I believe that people come away from the film with a deeper understanding about the subject because of the use of a fictional character.

Blurring the line between documentary and fiction raises questions about what an audience sees. It forces an opinion not only on the subject, but on the presentation of the subject. It calls attention to the fact that there is a difference between the real and unreal, between the true and the false, which is often overlooked, but it also reveals the overlap between two opposites. It allows a film-maker to say things that they could not otherwise. In Man’s New Best Friend we couldn’t express the full complexity, as we saw it, of the relationship between the robot dog and owner with a single person. So we created a patchwork character to do that. The relationship between the viewers and characters in some way reflects that of owner and robot dog. By creating a fictional character we were able to explore something which traditional documentary or fiction films cannot do, and which was relevant to our subject.

It seems to me that our contemporary culture is oversaturated with information and visual images. The news is more constructed and delivered than it is found and reported. The difference between truth and lies is bent and twisted by corporations and politicians in this new media landscape, to the point where both fact and fiction sound the same. At the same time, it seems that video diary and blogging will soon overtake the written memoir as the most popular way of recording ‘the truth’ about one’s life and the camera is ready to become the pen of 21st century. True/False cinema, Real fiction, whatever you want to call it, seems more able than any other form to reflect concerns current today and comes from a desire to explore, make sense of, and express an opinion about the world around us. This is why it is the most important development in cinema today.