Act normal: hybrid tendencies in documentary film

On the release of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing in UK cinemas, some excitement is emerging about the possibilities of new hybrid forms of documentary.


“All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction.”

Jean-Luc Godard

The Act of Killing (2012)
The Act of Killing (2012)

Aside from this admiration, the film has provoked reactions of both shock and awe, effects that can be attributed to a recent lack of public critical engagement and discussion of the documentary form.  This article is a minor attempt to create a current overview of the hybrid documentary by outlining some of influences and difficulties of these forms.

After a wave of non-negotiable fact presenting documentary films in the early 21st century, more recent filmmaking tendencies are offering plural directions for interpreting reality. The forms emerging are layered, offering a deconstructed point of view suspended within strategies for finding multiple truths.

These films have been loosely and conveniently referred to as ‘hybrid documentary’: A quick means of grouping factual based films that conceptually address the relationship between form and content in an attempt to pervert traditional factual production methodologies with new truth games. The more recognisable films that prompt this discussion present quite a broad spectrum of filmmaking: The Arbor, The Act of Killing, The Ambassador and Bombay Beach. Their differences motivate further discussion of what defines the ‘hybrid’ documentary and how its offerings might reposition future practices.

The notion of cinema ‘blurring the boundaries’ has created much buzz in the documentary world but little digestive reflection. An initial point of query is: ‘Hybrid between what and what?’ One general assumption is that these works emerge from the interstice of documentary and fiction – but what other boundaries do they operate between? Observation and instigation, life and art, the actual and possible, translation and interpretation, presence and performance, construction and deconstruction, evidence and heresay, authorship and plagiarism, meaning and abstraction.

Not all of these transcending devices work towards positive representation and some walk altogether different, more ethically challenging boundaries: from revealing to exploitative, from dissection to disgust, responsible to irresponsible, experimenting with to experimenting upon, dignity to deviation, orchestration to dictation, subjective to subjecting. Despite the hype generated by these films, their ambiguous genre means that many still have a hard time finding a home with funds, distributors, festivals and critics. These industry bodies still tend to  operate on strict categories of fiction vs. documentary or alternately permit willful ignorance of their fraught distinctions.

Bombay Beach (2011)
Bombay Beach (2011)

Recognition of new waves and emergent trends tend to overlook the specific ideas and patterns of filmmaking. The ‘hybrid documentary’ is not a subgenre, it is a mode of tactical filmmaking. To come to terms with these modus operandi, rather than looking upon them as a singular movement, there’s a need to trace each trajectory of complex, rich methodology.

The origins of these documentary forms find some roots in other creative and academic fields: artists taking a novel approach to historiography and archival interpretation, Performance Theory, metafiction, the reflexive turn in the social sciences, ethical playgrounds of Dogme cinema, reality television formats, ‘making of’ films, online confessional ‘selfies’, the artistic tradition of ‘The Grotesque’, Verbatim Theater, video conferencing and further creative methodologies that make transparent their modes of production and modes of producing evidence. Only now are we seeing their influence on more mainstream, widely distributed documentary cinema.

The enlightened position of the viewer in relation to film production has further permitted the possibility of deconstructed narratives and transparent mise en scene. In the 21st century, developments in hardware and software have supported a combined rise in media literacy and an incessant practice of self-editing.

Human relations and knowledge transfers are increasingly rendered, retouched, dubbed, compressed, formatted and uploaded before being experienced – this occurs in both familiar (friends, work colleagues) and remote environments (Arab uprising). The objective documentary facts in these images are reduced to metadata of time, place, camera model.

It is thus difficult to separate the boundaries of drama and documentary when the reality many filmmakers experience and record is already hybridised. The social self is the telepresent self, premediated, auto-fictionalised, auto-caricatured an imitator of the fictions we weave. The documentary filmmaker remains wary of addressing these technologies of the self – taking caution to eliminate or edit out schizophrenic ‘acting up’ and performed presence in film. This fear has in the past promoted the use of authoritative fact-distributing characters in documentary cinema: a series of  talking heads able to recite truths and nurture belief of the viewer, perhaps as a means of distancing the films from other purely fictional forms of cinema narrative. Clarity in form creates acceptance and trust in content.

This dictum resonates in drama documentary or fiction film rooted in real events. No dramatic eyebrow is raised when fiction films claim to be ‘based on a true story’, the most simple tactic of narrative credibility. Documentaries simply deploying dramatic reconstruction within a factual narrative framework are easily consumed, as the line between the ‘documentary’ and ‘drama’ sections are more clearly demarcated through formal devices: The Imposter, Man on Wire, Dreams of a Life and Who is Dayani Cristal. This practice perhaps opens up new audiences for the documentary genre by offering a more familiar method of storytelling: drama, but puts forward little progress for the form. The habit is not new, constructed realities have been present in documentary since their inception, Nanook of the North is essentially a series of staged sequences using real people in real places.

Each move forward in the documentary form revitalises earlier avant garde filmmaking with new subject and appropriate meetings of form/content. Without attempting to seed some neologisms, here are some simple groupings and genealogies of each methodological trajectory.

Among them:

Performing the Archive:

A means of addressing historic acts, records or media through creative reenactment, interpretation or improvisation

Joshua Oppenheimer, Act of Killing
Clio Barnard, The Arbor
James N Kienitz Wilkins, Public Hearing

Past references:
Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001
Irina Botea, Auditions for a Revolution2006

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The Literate Layer:

An amalgamation of documentary footage or archive with a layer of poetic interepretation through voice over or subtitles

João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata, Last Time I Saw Macao
Terence Davies, Of Time and the City
John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses

Past references:
Films of Chris Marker, John Smith
Kidlat Tahimik, Perfumed Nightmare, 1977

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Intelligent Provocateur:

A performative form in which the director assumes a character to instigate and reveal through provocative investigative journeys

Renzo Martens, Enjoy Poverty
Mads Brügger, The Ambassador
Mads Brügger, Red Chapel

Past references: Dogme film, Erik van Lieshout

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Improvised Self:

A method of dramatising the self to achieve representational clarity or reveal the fantastic ‘magical’ self

Aran Hughes & Christina Koutsospyrou, To the Wolf
Bill and Turner Ross, Tchoupitulas
Michelangelo Frammartino, Le Quattro Volte
Alma Har’el, Bombay Beach

Past references:
Ethno fiction of Jean Rouch eg. Cocorico Monsieur Poulet
Robert J. Flaherty, Nanook of the North, 1922

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Reflexive Acting / Casting Couch:

A useful state of the nation device, ask the leyman to perform their ideal self or fantasies and we recognise not only the individual character but the character of society

Gillian Wearing, Self Made
Tinatin Gurchiani, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear

Past reference: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Salaam Cinema, 1995

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One shared intention of these films is their tendency to not confirm information agendas or state facts but to question, confuse and experiment, they are open forms of filmmaking. Audiences are increasingly prepared for this experience due to a correlating general rise in media literacy and decrease in trust of traditional media narratives. Perhaps these films respond to the need to re-engage trust of audiences with indirect truth finding exercises: journalism that does not feel like journalism, science that does not feel like science.

The hybrid documentary contributes to the possibility of film opening an ongoing dialogue between subject and audience. This offering can be uneasy, it lacks the closure of a defined call to action, polemic debate or carefully scripted essay film. The audience is left with a lingering feeling like frustration, bewilderment and even annoyance – it’s a space without answers, a space that positively provokes more questions, rather than closing a chapter of history. If the audience is not prepared to take the journey then the result can be one of simple rejection.

How do we assess the ethical and aesthetic merits of a film that does not attempt to be more factual than fictional? On a spectrum of honesty-manipulation? Form-function? Responsible-irresponsible? How are the filmmakers assessing their own codes of operation? Paradoxically, the audience awareness of fact production and manipulation allows the filmmaker to negotiate a new level of trust through shared transparency: “This is how I shall produce the story, come with me on this journey.”

The increase of audience trust permits a shift in ethical contracts between filmmaker and subject, a shared ground of risk and experiment. For these games of presentation and representation, acting and reenacting to produce mutual dialogue the subject and audience must also be taken on this journey to a new code of conduct. Documentary cinema does not permit irresponsibility. One can provoke with ethically contentious statements and remain responsible for those actions and outcomes. Ultimately responsibility of the filmmaker grants the movement into new forms of documentary cinema experience and with this move the burden and stakes for the filmmaker increase. But what are the consequences if one of the tricks goes wrong? What creative  risks can filmmakers take when consequences affect real lives? Artistic exploration is not immunity, copycats may suffer making difficult lives from difficult films.

The Ambassador (2011)
The Ambassador (2011)

In cases sited: Enjoy Poverty, The Act of Killing, The Ambassador, and the films of Chris Marker and Jean Rouch, the ethical experiment is safer to play out elsewhere, an irregular place without regulation. If the game turns sour, are we prepared for the fallout of failed Ambassadors of the future? Who is implicated in the game? Who is safe from it’s story? In most cases the filmmakers can walk away and wipe their hands, a seemingly necessary premise for such ethically fraught filmmaking strategies. Would their actions be more tamed if conducted on home turf, under the scrutiny of Western media and apparent tradition of journalistic discipline?

Upholding a singular code of ethics for documentary filmmakers similar to that of journalism would seriously limit documentary as an artform. Not only would the creative spectrum be reduced but also the ability to question ethical constructs within that set ethical framework.

It seems that hybrid forms will allow a move away from didactic, moralistic documentary toward methodologies that address the complexity of contemporary screen cultures where immediate truth is mediated truth: an age of filmmaking that embraces cover versions, reenactments, quoting, facebook walls, ambient cameras, chat roulette, the cloud self, film glitch, historiography, media archaeology, data hackers, skyping, dubbing and archive remixing. Filmmakers are beginning to weave against the weave, to unpick the mediated presence of everyday life and become tangled in remaining individual threads of truth, telling the story of omnipresent storytelling.

To close it is useful to identify some shared and unique, outstanding characteristics of these films. Hopefully to correlate with the increasing complexity of documentary cinema there will be an rise in critical engagement that acknowledges difficult images and questions the responsibility of the filmmaker.

Traits of hybrid documentary:

  • The self is performed, therefore can be directed
  • The political can be playful
  • Ethics are flexible: They begin with the filmmaker
  • Form is content
  • History is live
  • A film is a documentary of it’s own production (Jacques Rivette)
  • The director is responsible
  • Imagination belongs to the reality it is born into
  • The screen is pandemic, the stage omnipresent
  • No facts are separable from their fabrication
  • Trust is the basis of truth

Luke W Moody is a cineaste and maker based in London. He currently works for BRITDOC Foundation and runs, literally runs, an artist filmmaker bursary itsgotlegs. You can contact him here.


5 thoughts on “Act normal: hybrid tendencies in documentary film

  1. […] Hybrid documentaries are emerging as their own genre, applying fiction techniques to doc films, and doc techniques to fiction films.  Be this the application of  Godard’s “All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction. ” finally coming home, or a group consensus that cinema needs a kick in the ass, I love it.  Be it STORIES WE TELL, THE ACT OF KILLING, THE MISSING PICTURE, THE SUMMIT or THE IMPOSTER, we are getting the start of a Hybrid canon. […]


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