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Is the line between documentary and fiction more blurred than ever?

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A look at Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ and how Under the Skin seamlessly mixed reality with fiction.

According to Google, the noun documentary means “a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject.” Documentary the adjective describes something “using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events”, again “to provide a factual report on a particular subject”. Now take these seemingly uncomplicated sentences and apply them to the likes of The Act of Killing, The Arbor, Tarnation, Of Time and the City, anything by Werner Herzog or any of the countless psycho-geographical ‘documentary essays’ that have become the weapon of choice for the amateur British filmmaker of our age. Yes, I see it too: a big, fat can of worms.

The complex issue of truth in film has been much written about. Film’s capacity to capture and relay reality is always under scrutiny

Of course, the complex issue of truth in film has been much written about. In just about every film school in the country, flocks of students and academics toil day and night in search of a fairer understanding of the enigmatic term ‘documentary’, and the category of film it represents. The difference between fact and truth in cinema – one being a matter of objective record and the other a more subjective state of being – is a common theme of discussion, while film’s capacity to capture and relay reality is always under close scrutiny.

Directors like Herzog, Errol Morris and Chris Marker have tackled such issues head on, using the potent documentary form to draw attention to its own limitations. Consider Herzog’s wonderful Encounters at the End of the World and the scene where an apparently depressed penguin makes a suicidal break from its colony, heading for certain death in the surrounding mountains. With no small hint of irony, the maverick director throws an overtly man-made narrative onto the natural world in a manner befitting the BBC’s unashamedly Disneyfied Hidden Kingdoms. Is he poking fun at our insatiable appetite for the digestible, genre-specific stories that the average documentarian is obliged to construct for our viewing pleasure? I’d hazard a guess at yes. It’s a brand of irony often referred to as reflexive film-making.

encounters at the end of the world penguin

In fact, Herzog has been quite the pioneer when it comes to the real on film. Much of his filmography is concerned to some extent with truth. For years he has talked about an abstract philosophical notion referred to as ‘ecstatic truth’. In a speech Herzog gave in Milan a few years back, following a screening of his controversial Lessons of Darkness, the director went some way to explaining the phrase.

Terence Davies’s masterful Of Time and the City is as much about the act of storytelling as it is about the rich history of Liverpool

Speaking about a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal in the film, which was in fact written by the director himself, Herzog said: “With this quotation as a prefix I elevate [erheben] the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.”

In acknowledging his own authorship, the director draws attention to the act of fiction building in documentary film-making. He goes on to outline his extensive exploration of our complicated relationship with truth, hinting that it might be somewhere within the frames of a fictional construct – whether it be musical, literary or visual – that we are most likely to come to an understanding of ourselves and the world around us (he refers specifically to the sublime quality of opera). I have certainly experienced something of the like myself on numerous occasions, perhaps most notably during my first viewing of Terence Davies’s masterful Of Time and the City – a sensual feast of a documentary that is as much about the act of storytelling as it is about its director and the rich history of Liverpool.

of time and the city

While the documentary genre is pulsing with such subversive material – even in the mainstream arena – directors of your typical fiction have not appeared quite so enamoured with philosophy of this ilk (most features supposedly ‘based on a true story’ don’t really apply); you could study film at university and never even touch on the subject of truth. But there are, of course, exceptions.

In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke essentially played himself in some kind of postmodernist, pseudo-documentary-style theatre therapy

The Dogme 95 movement of the 90s forced filmmakers to adopt a purist approach to directing, steering clear of over-elaborate techniques. In the process, it launched the careers of its founders, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who are well worth looking at in tandem with Herzog. Classics like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Weekend are robust examples of fiction dissecting reality and, occasionally, even a mainstream feature like The Wrestler will demand a moment’s consideration.

I recall once trying to persuade a university tutor that Mickey Rourke was essentially playing himself in some kind of postmodernist, pseudo-documentary-style theatre therapy – I may have gone too far at this point. However, the most striking film of recent times to address the real is without doubt Jonathan Glazer’s bold and compellingly bizarre masterpiece, Under the Skin.

With Scarlett Johansson as a man-devouring alien prowling the streets of Glasgow in a rusty old van, the idea that Glazer’s third full-length piece (following on from 2000’s Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth) resonates in any way with reality might seem a tad obscure. But, ten years in the making, Under the Skin covers a vast expanse of new ground – from the dark shadows of Scotland’s second city to the swirling mists and rolling hills of the surrounding countryside – with a profoundly candid approach to filming in the field, not to mention one or two scenes that will go down in cinema history.

More on Under the Skin: How a surreal sci-fi cracked UK’s top ten

under the skin van

Stripping Johansson – perhaps the biggest female actor on the planet – of all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and unleashing her into the cold folds of Glasgow in a dark wig and fishnet tights is about as alien as it gets. She is the ultimate ‘other’ starring in a film about the ultimate ‘other’. Her perplexed look as she’s caught in the flow of a riotous hen party and dragged onto the dance floor of a grim looking nightclub is absolutely perfect, but I doubt it took a great deal of acting.

For Under the Skin, scenes were shot on location, while most extras were unwitting Glaswegians filmed in secret

What’s more, as a means of achieving a nigh-on unprecedented level of authenticity, some of the men approached by the already infamous white van were not professional actors, but people who just happened to be passing by at the time. Glazer laced the vehicle with hidden cameras and, along with his crew, pounced on the men with disclaimer forms immediately after their flirtations with Johansson. In addition, many of the film’s establishing sequences and city-based scenes were shot on location without forewarning to the public; most extras were unwitting Glaswegians filmed in secret. And it’s also worth noting that none of the film’s characters are named – they all just seem to be playing a version of themselves.

While these anti-flourishes emphasise the film’s concern for the real and its representation on screen, they don’t necessarily raise viewers to that state of heightened perception that Herzog talks about – though interesting, we are not easily moved by Johansson’s alienation and otherworldly endeavours. But in a remarkable few scenes with Adam Pearson, a 29-year-old neurofibromatosis sufferer (a condition that causes non-cancerous tumours to grow on nerve tissue), we find what we are looking for.

under the skin adam pearson

On a late-night trip to the shops, under cover of darkness to avoid the staring crowds, Pearson’s hooded character is lured into the van. Johansson’s alien does not initially seem to perceive his facial disfigurement and so proceeds with her seduction, starting by complimenting his beautiful hands and inviting him to touch her face; a nude scene soon follows. Watching these two actors – who are so effective in their roles because of who they are in real life – interact is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s as if we are watching the sequence being filmed as opposed to watching the film itself. It’s so infused with nervous energy, genuine discomfort and tangible arousal that it transcends the limits of the camera lens. It’s a truly extraordinary few minutes shared between two extreme outsiders – fiction or not.

Under the Skin reminds us that the beauty of truth, like the beauty of film itself, lies in its subjectivity and personal resonance

Pearson, speaking to The Observer’s Elizabeth Day, explained recently: “One of the main reasons for taking the role was because it was so moving and honest… For me, the film is about what the world looks like without knowledge and without prejudice. It’s about seeing the world through alien eyes, I guess. ” He continued to outline how the film has helped challenge some of the stigma surrounding disfigurement, and went on to suggest that people with actual conditions should be playing the movie world’s evil characters who are so often defined by disfigurements.

Johansson and her Under the Skin character also appear to benefit from the exchange, with the film taking an unexpected turn towards the human as she obtains a degree of self-knowledge. She leaves the city and embarks on a strange relationship with a rural man she meets at a bus stop, coming to understand something of a quiet and understated side of life that in reality she is not, and probably never will be, privy to. It’s extremely effective.

Searching for something real via a fictional framework has – for Glazer, Johansson, Pearson and anyone lucky enough to have seen the film – proved fruitful. Under the Skin reminds us that the beauty of the kind of truth described by Herzog, like the beauty of film itself, lies in its subjectivity and personal resonance. Whilst teaching us a little something of what it is to be human, Glazer’s is a film that challenges how we construct and interact with the stories that surround us, offering rare moments of clarity in a world of film where truth is fleeting, fragmented and obscure. It proves that fiction can be just as potent an arena for the real as documentary.

More on documentary: Celebrating C4’s new wave of observation

 

Featured image: StudioCanal

Inset images: Revolver Entertainment; BFI; StudioCanal; StudioCanal

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