London’s Open City Documentary Festival brands itself as a “celebration of the art of nonfiction.” The film festival gives a platform to both established masters and emerging talent working in this field, and often, they challenge viewers to expand their very definition of the form. Several films in the line-up for this year’s Open City, which ran September 4 through 10, confront the slippery boundary between fiction and nonfiction.
Kevin B. Lee, an American filmmaker, critic, and the first artist in residence for the Harun Farocki Institut in Berlin, produced a series of video essays on Farocki’s extensive oeuvre, several of which screened at the festival. In Harun Farocki — The Counter-Image (2018), Lee analyzes the first minute of Farocki’s very first film, Two Paths (1966), and the last minute of his final one, Parallel II (2014). Two Paths opens with footage of a religious oil painting, while the end of Parallel II features a video game — both images which do not reflect the world as it is, but stylized versions of it.
Crunching the numbers on Farocki’s oeuvre, Lee concludes that 80% of his 120 works can comfortably be called documentary, while 20% are dramatization. On further reflection, he realizes that the two are in fact “mixed together” and “hard to separate.” Farocki excelled at creating “images of images.” His nonfictions are often based on other people’s fictions. With his own work, Lee adds another link to this chain, creating an image of an image of an image, if you will.
A fictitious image is also the pivot of Burak Çevik’s compellingly weird feature Belonging (2019), in which the Turkish filmmaker recounts and restages how his aunt and her boyfriend murdered his grandmother. Lying somewhere between Crime and Punishment and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the film portrays the young man and woman as they meet one night at a bar, embark on a relationship, and plot the killing.
In the first half, we are shown the locations that cumulatively make up the crime scene: a bus station in Ankara, the motorway to Istanbul, the victim’s bedroom. In this world devoid of human presence, the only movement is the rustling of wind or the drumming of rain. These stills are accompanied by a voiceover in which Çevik reads from the boyfriend’s confession to police. “I don’t know what’s real and what’s fiction,” it states near the beginning. Neither does the audience.
The second half of the film consists of a reconstruction of the lovers’ meeting on a balmy summer evening. In this dramatic rendering, they’re not particularly truthful with one other either. He lies about which part of Turkey he’s from; she lies about having a psychology degree. There’s even a phony graduation photo, pointing to the fundamental untrustworthiness of images. In Belonging, to see is not to know.
A similar blurring of fake and real is at play in the “autofictional” MS Slavic 7 (2019), by Canadian directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell. The film follows Audrey (a fictionalized version of Bohdanowicz, played by Campbell), who becomes completely absorbed in the real epistolary correspondence between her (Bohdanowicz’s) great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, and the Nobel-Prize-nominated author Józef Wittlin. Audrey decamps in a sterile hotel and makes regular pilgrimages to Harvard’s archives to study the box of letters (the title of the film is the box’s library call number).
The initial documentary style quickly gives way to staged, even hammy, dramatic moments, such as a verbal altercation between Audrey and her uptight aunt at a family party. Later, in a postcoital conversation with her Polish translator, he says that Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin’s relationship was one of “affection and love.” But for Audrey, it’s just a “fantasy of love” — a fiction.
All these filmmakers use elements of fiction as a way of arriving at a greater truth. As Lee deftly demonstrates, Farocki’s style is based on the presentation of images which reveal how society imagines and portrays itself. Çevik forensically reconstructs the circumstances of an event to try to construct missing details that are irretrievably lost. Bohdanowicz and Campbell present a fictional framing device as an entry point into real family history. Such filmmaking unseats normal notions of the intersection between fact and fiction in documentary.
The Open City Documentary Festival ran September 4-10 in London.