Can a documentary be surrealistic?

Can a documentary be surrealistic?

I was recently asked this question by a student in film school. I thought it was a interesting concept so I figured I would share what I sent him.

Lets discuss what a documentary is first. Here is the definition via wikipedia from a solid source (oed.com) “A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.”

So on it’s face a documentary is supposed to be completely non-fiction and it’s main intent is supposed to be to inform it’s viewership of some aspect of real life. Most documentaries journey into a subject in a very flat manor and flush out the subject matter in a way that the director decides.

These films truly began to challenge the subject matter

Over the years this has mostly been true, but around the mid 1970s this was beginning to be challenged for the first time. A young filmmaker hailing from Germany named Werner Herzog (Director: Cave of Forgotten Dreams [2010], Grizzly Man [2005], The White Diamond [2004], Wheel of Time [2003]) started producing documentaries. These films truly began to challenge the subject matter and the subjects that were being interviewed in a way that had never been done before. Often operating the camera himself to attempt to reveal the true nature of the subject matter being revealed, be it holding the camera on the subject long after a statement has been made to show how uncomfortable they are on the subject or literally pushing up the camera into their face to intimidate the subject and causing them to break and reveal their true nature. It was a new style of documentary filmmaking that had never been done before.

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I personally believe that he was largely influenced by Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1974) a film that largely brought to the idea that documentaries and films should be questioned and challenged, it was a deep dive into the concepts of authorship and authenticity. This film was largely disliked, but if their was one concept that Herzog took from this film, it was that the only way to prove something is true, is by revealing the human nature that reveals the speaker is being truthful.

truly looking for something interesting, the directors reveal a much more grandiose story

Starting in the 2000’s this more modern kind of documentary started to become very popular. Playing off of the human element, and truly looking for something interesting, the directors reveal a much more grandiose story. A few examples of these are Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), My Kid Could Paint That (2007) and Matthew Heinemans recent documentary Cartel Land (2015).

On their faces, these films do tell a simple story that is easy to follow. But all of them clearly aim to reveal a larger concept about society, or a distinct flaw in humanity. Be it the vain of Mr. Brainwash revealing how easy it is to “fake” your way into the street art world and how hungry modern society is to eat it up; Be it the greed of Marla’s parents and the idea that the patrons purchasing her art cared nothing about the art itself, but solely the story behind and the notoriety it was producing; or that the war on drugs in Mexico is not something that be solved, because it is a war based on cultural idealisms and power, not the product they are selling and trading.

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So a documentary can be more than just a “nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.” it can be a look directly into humanity and the concepts that surrounds us. It can show us exactly what makes us human, by connecting dots that a person can’t conceptualize, or simply choose not to.

It can show us exactly what makes us human

Surrealism in the art world aims to allow the unconscious to express itself. It often has surprising juxtaposition with an aim at explaining the philosophical.
If you view art in it’s simplest form, a method of expression. Then all of the documentaries I discussed are Surrealistic.

Use of juxtaposition, non sequiturs, and the element of surprise to help us understand a philosophical concepts are the core tools used by modern documentaries to help us understand what and why it is happening on screen. They are how we break down our concrete views on concepts and allow building of new ideas.

If art and film have one thing in common, it’s that they give their audiences the ability to challenge everything and that is quite powerful. That’s a good thing.

By Justin Kietzman

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Director and Editor at Bonafide Film House