Documentary Cinema: CW2
“In a number of ways,” claims Michael Renov, “fictional and nonfictional forms are enmeshed in one another […]” (Theorizing Documentary 2). Discuss and illustrate Renov’s statement by applying it to—and testing it out on—ONE documentary film of your choice.
This essay will discuss Renov’s statement and test it out in relation to the film Grizzly Man (2005) by Werner Herzog. After situating Renov’s argument within the context of arguments over documentary cinema, it will be argued that Herzog’s film can mainly be seen to support Renov’s statement. Grizzly Man provides a good example of a film that enmeshes fictional and nonfictional forms. The film, it will be argued, also takes this further, to question the very categories of fiction and nonfiction that Renov outlines. It achieves this through the use of layering of different levels of reality, the use of performance, critical ironic distance and the production of a kind of ‘poetic truth’, which differs from the ‘representational truth’ of the cinema verité tradition.
An opposition can be seen in the history of documentary between those, on one hand, who read documentary as a vital reference to truth and reality, and those, on the other hand, who argue that such reference is impossible as truth will always be constructed and subjective. In the first camp can be included those associated with traditions of cinema verité. As Dancyger summarises, verité filmmaking was based on “the desire to make real stories about real people” (2007, p. 121). It allowed, as Hall argues, the possibility of revealing and capturing social problems without overt intervention on behalf of the filmmaker (1998, p.225). Documentary, in this sense, was inherently political, as it gave a voice to those who may have been excluded from the dominant representations of society, and presented their stories to a wider public. In the other camp, however, many have been critical of such assumptions. It is difficult to maintain for example, that the filmmaker can remain absent from the act of framing and editing reality for public consumption. Trinh T.Minh-ha, for example, has argued that “there is no such thing as documentary”, (1993, p.91). Truth and reality are not discovered but are actively produced by the filmmaker, and there is only ever a meaning, not the definitive objective one (1993, pp.91-92). As Hall goes on to point out, cinema verité quickly became a style (1998, p.224). The restlessness of its lightweight handheld cameras, blurred grainy images and impromptu performances became not merely a record of reality but a specific aesthetic. Godard, for example, has spoken about how he was interested in using this aesthetic without its necessary associations with truth and reality (Kovacs, 2007, p.170). Most recent definitions of documentary, then, acknowledge both of these poles. Documentary does bear relation to reality, yet it is also constructed in a certain way according to the style of the documentary filmmaker. As Bruzzi points out, “documentary will never be reality nor will it erase or invalidate that reality by being representational” (2006, p.6). Renov’s quote can be located within this context. Documentaries use a variety of techniques, including fictional and nonfictional forms. Expanding his argument, Renov expands on his differing definitions of these terms. The ‘nonfictional’ for him is when the referent of the film is “a piece of the world” rather than something staged for the camera (1993, p.2). The ‘fictional’, on the other hand, is when “people and objects placed before the camera yield to the demands of a creative vision” (1993, p.2). In order for these forms to be enmeshed, the documentary would take an element of ‘reality’ as its material, and yet subject this to the structures of creative interpretation. This theory can be tested out in relation to Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Grizzly Man (2005).
The film tells the story of an eccentric American bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent large parts of his life living out in the wild with and filming grizzly bears in remote parts of North America. His aims were not only to live a life away from human contact but also to closely observe the bears and record documentary footage. The structure of Herzog’s film is to take Treadwell’s own footage as his starting point, re-edit it and intersperse it with other footage, including interviews and his own commentary. The film, then, immediately seems to conform to Renov’s claims for the enmeshing of fictional and nonfictional forms. It is presented as a record of events in reality, with Treadwell’s footage constantly used as an index of this reality, but also reformed within Herzog’s ‘creative vision’, through the use of fictional strategies and devices to become something other entirely. As Renov argues, “documentary shares the status of all discursive forms with regard to its tropic or figurative character” (1993, p.3). In other words, documentary inevitably uses formal and narrative devices associated with fiction film in order to tell its stories. Renov’s statement, however, is also complicated by the film through its self-awareness. The mixing of Treadwell’s footage and Herzog’s reworking creates the effect of a documentary within a documentary, not only enmeshing fiction and nonfiction but actively drawing attention to them, to the narratives that sustain them, and to the effects their intertwining can produce. Grizzly Man opens with some of Treadwell’s footage. The static camera, which he moves to turn on and off, while speaking directly to, suggests the lack of a crew and creates an effect of unmediated authenticity. His improvised sounding speech oscillating between descriptions of nature and his own self-mythologizing as a hero “fearless of death” suggest a lack of editing and the free-flowing nature of the ‘truth’ of a verité style documentary. It also, however reveals the mixing of fictional techniques, Treadwell’s self-fashioning as ‘hero’ suggests the active construction of a specific narrative, even while his meandering monologue references the ‘truthful’ associations of cinema verité. Fictional and nonfictional forms are enmeshed already in Treadwell’s footage. A further layer is added however through Herzog’s intervention. A title is placed over Treadwell with the year of his birth and death. This has a powerful narrative effect. Firstly, it creates irony – the spectator knows that despite Treadwell’s claims of strength in the face of death, he is going to die. Secondly, it creates powerful narrative suspense, ‘when will this death happen?’ we are left wondering, and this question is left uncomfortably unanswered as the film starts to develop.
The next shots make reference to the conventions of the traditional nature documentary, using long interrupted tracking shots of the landscape and the bears as subjects. The only sound is diegetic and we expect, according to convention, to hear an authoritative voiceover providing objective information on the landscape and its inhabitants. Instead, what happens creates a very different effect. Dramatic music comes to accompany the footage, the use of slide guitar recalling Herzog’s previous collaborations with the band Popol Vuh, and the voiceover that does emerge is Herzog’s own distinctive measured heavily accented voice, recognizable to anyone who has seen his work before. Rather than describing the landscape or footage, Herzog goes on to discuss how what we are about to see goes “beyond a wildlife film”. It is an illustration, according to the voiceover, of man’s desire to reach beyond his own humanity, and simultaneously the inherent impossibility of this. Another layer of myth is added over Treadwell’s own myth-making. ‘Nonfictional’ forms have been mixed with fictional strategies, not only of suspense and drama, but also those of auteur references and association. The struggle for truth in extreme landscapes and circumstances, as well as the exploration of characters isolated from mainstream society have been distinctive features of Herzog’s own cinematic project in previous films such as Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Heart of Glass (1976). Through the voiceover, Herzog’s own use of the footage is drawn attention to. It will become part of a narrative of “human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil”, using fiction and nonfiction in order to try and reach something which, it could be argued, transcends them both.
It could also be argued that beyond merely illustrating Renov’s statement of the mixing of fictional and nonfictional forms, Herzog, through the layering of realities in the film, actually takes this further, making the spectator question the relevance of categories of fiction and nonfiction entirely. Responses to the film have been sometimes confused with audiences unsure how to respond. A look at responses on the internet site IMDb for example shows how questions have been raised such as “is this film real? Is this a mockumentary? Or ‘is this film a hoax?’” (IMDb, 2010). Such responses suggest that despite the importance of mixing codes of fiction and nonfiction in documentary, viewers are still invested in concepts such as reality and truthfulness, and something about the film has caused these categories to be thrown into doubt. Herzog’s own response is interesting. Discussing his work generally, he makes a distinction between two different types of truth – the ‘accountant’s truth’ of cinema verité and the ‘deeper truth’ of his own work (Herzog & Cronin, 2002, p.239). By ‘accountant’s truth’ can be understood the truth of representation as a kind of faithfulness to reality. Herzog actively rejects this in the search for a more poetic form of truth:
Cinema, like poetry, is inherently able to present a number of dimensions much deeper than the level of the so-called truth that we find in cinema verité. and even in reality itself. I truly hope to be one of those who finally bury cinema verité for good. (2002, p.239)
Grizzly Man can be interpreted in this way. It makes reference to elements of cinema verité style mainly to draw attention to and critique them, while using them as part of the search for a deeper and more profound truth than that of indexical representation. The mixture of fictional and nonfictional styles is necessary for Herzog to try and achieve this aim. The ‘found footage’ from Treadwell gives the film an emotional lure. We are constantly drawn into his world precisely through nonfiction techniques such as the direct uninterrupted tracking shots, direct monologues to the camera, and seemingly carelessly composed framing valuing the revelations of spontaneity over the aesthetics of style. The disruptive force of the film, however, comes from the detachment of the Herzog voiceover from the found footage. At one point for example, Treadwell expounds his theory of nature to camera. It is an idealistic view, providing an escape from the dehumanizing effects of society where one can be free through proximity to it. Here, the footage is abruptly cut as Herzog interrupts to expound his own philosophy of nature – something dark, destructive and more powerful than human comprehension. Through such interventions, Treadwell’s footage is framed as a construction itself, one viewpoint, which can be both used and critiqued by Herzog throughout the film, in order to present his own viewpoints. It is the dominance of his own philosophical and poetic voiceover, which creates the effect of doubting the authenticity of the original material. Within the context of the film as search for ‘poetic truth’ of the situation, it would not matter whether Timothy Treadwell ever actually existed and filmed the material, or whether he was a fictional creation of Herzog’s making. Fictional and non-fictional forms are so enmeshed as to make the categories seem almost redundant in the search for some ‘deeper’ truth of humanity. While for Renov, “they [fiction and nonfiction] inhabit one another” yet are still, ultimately separate categories, Herzog in Grizzly Man suggests that perhaps there need be no separation between them at all.
Renov expands on his initial statement, arguing that fictional and nonfictional forms are particularly enmeshed in relation to “semiotics, narrativity and questions of performance” (1993, p. 2). The first two points can be seen throughout Grizzly Man. In terms of semiotics, its codes of representation can be interpreted as a mix of fictional and nonfictional codes. Treadwell’s handheld camera references the spontaneous authenticity of the ‘real’, for example, while also creating dramatic effect such as the use of low-angle shots to emphasize the size and danger of the bears. In terms of narrative, the meandering narrative of Treadwell’s diary recordings are plotted into a linear frame through Herzog’s editing, creating a narrative structure, which draws on fiction and nonfiction strategies. In is the last point, however, which is most telling here. As Bruzzi has argued, performance and performativity are vital to the contemporary documentary (2006, p.6), and it is through its use of performance that the documentary is most interesting. Such performance takes place at a number of levels. There is Treadwell’s own direct performance to the camera, his self-mythologizing as saviour and protector of the bears, which is undercut through Herzog’s framing and the spectator’s constant knowledge of Treadwell’s ultimate failure. The effect of such framing is to foreground Treadwell’s recording as performance. It is never an objective record but an actively framed and staged event in line with Renov’s description of ‘fictional form’. It is also further complicated, however, through Herzog’s own performance. His overly dramatic voiceovers, philosophical discursiveness and own presence in front of the camera serve to further draw attention to the documentary maker’s construction of reality through a variety of enmeshing of fictional and nonfictional techniques. Herzog’s own performance is most compelling when he tries to show Treadwell’s final footage (documenting his own death) to his close friend but finds the material too unbearable to watch, urging her emotively not to watch it. The spectator, positioned along with the friend, unable to watch this material, instead watches Herzog watch it and is left only with his speechless reaction to it. Through his levels of layering, self-aware performance and constant fictional narrative strategies, Herzog succeeds, not only in collapsing the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, but also in creating an image of the true horror of the unrepresentable and inaccessible real not accounted for in Renov’s formula.
Renov’s statement, then, is a useful way to approach documentary cinema. Against the claims to truth of the cinema verité tradition and arguments for the impossibility of representing the real, it suggests that documentary will always be a mix of codes. It will have some connection to truth and reality but will use a mixture of fictional and nonfictional techniques and styles in order to represent and frame this material. Grizzly Man is, in most senses, a good illustration of this argument. It uses fictional and nonfictional forms in a number of ways in order to create its effect. It could also be argued that it take Renov’s argument further, breaking down the distinction between fiction and nonfiction entirely in order to create a different form of truth – the ‘poetic truth’ that Herzog alludes to – leading to confusion over its status amongst audiences, and the possibility of an unrepresentable and horrific real at the core of the film.
Grizzly Man, dir. W.Herzog, USA: 2005.
Bruzzi, S. (2006) New Documentary, 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Dancyger, K. (2007) The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory and Practice. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.
Hall, J. (1998) ‘Don’t You Ever Just Watch?: American Cinema Verité and Don’t Look Back’, in B.K.Grant & J. Sloniowski (Eds.) Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp.223-237.
Herzog, W. & Cronin, P. (2002) Herzog on Herzog. London: Faber and Faber.
IMDb (2010) ‘Grizzly Man’, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0427312/, [accessed 3/1/2011].
Kovacs, A.B. (2007) European Art Cinema 1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Minh-ha, Trinh.T. (1993) ‘The Totalizing Quest of Meaning’, in Theorizing Documentary. London: Routledge, pp.90-107.
Renov, M. (1993) ‘Introduction: The Truth about Non-Fiction’, in Theorizing Documentary. London: Routledge, pp.1-11.