An unusual number of this year's Oscar contenders for best picture are based on true events: "The Social Network," "The Fighter," "The King's Speech" and "127 Hours." At least one other nominee, "Winter's Bone," although fictional, conveys such a wealth of sociological detail about its rural Missouri setting that it could be used to flesh out a PBS "Frontline" segment on, say, crystal meth's ravages or squirrel-skinning.
But there's a parallel trend in documentary filmmaking. With new camera and editing technology allowing documentarians to construct ever-more complex, nonlinear narratives — and filmmakers increasingly employing reenactments, animated sequences, finely drawn characters, humorous or ironic voice-overs and unreliable narrators to get at what they see as "truth" — some documentaries are playing more and more like fictional films.
As many of the conventional boundaries between fictional and fact-based movies blur, debate is growing among filmmakers, critics and viewers at large about whether this new adventurousness and creativity is simply broadening the possibilities of the art form, or potentially undermining the integrity of documentary-makers and misleading the public. The tension is evident even in this year's Oscar race for documentary feature.
The five nominees include relatively traditional, journalistic-style films such as "Restrepo," a harrowing account of a U.S. Army platoon manning a remote Afghanistan outpost, and "Waste Land," Lucy Walker's inspirational tale about the transformative powers of art.
Then there's "Exit Through the Gift Shop," an outlandish look at one man's fascination with street art and street artists, including British bad-boy graffiti artist-activist Banksy, who happens to be the filmmaker himself. "Exit" has had many viewers questioning whether the film was real or an elaborate hoax.
"I think we're at an exciting stage, where the energy is in this nexus and this cross-fertilization" between fictional and documentary films, says Walker, whose "Waste Land" chronicles a project by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and a group of refuse collectors to make mixed-media works out of recyclable materials from Rio de Janeiro's largest dump.
But she adds a caution. "I support experimentation in general, but I don't believe in faking scenes," she says, speaking generally rather than about any specific film. "There's a lot of ways where, if you're not being truthful, then what are you being about?"
The reasons behind the shake-up in documentary filmmaking are both technological and sociocultural. Walker attributes the development in no small measure to the invention of high-quality, lightweight equipment such as the Red Digital Cinema Camera and new digital editing programs that allow low-budget documentary filmmakers to construct elaborate narratives from hours of out-of-sequence footage more easily than in the past.
Another key factor driving the experimentation and genre-scrambling of today's documentaries, some say, is the erosion of the ideal of the supposedly omniscient and impartial filmmaker who coolly lays out just the facts, ma'am. That's been due in part to changes in other media, including television, newspapers and magazines. As newspapers and the Big 3 television news networks have steadily lost market share, and scripted "reality" TV has taken over the airwaves, new-breed documentaries are being shaped by a culture in which millions of people now regard Jon Stewart's satirical Comedy Central news program "The Daily Show" as a more truthful reflection of the real world than CNN or Fox newscasts.
In documentaries, stentorian-voiced narrators in trench coats are gradually being shoved aside by in-your-face provocateurs such as Michael Moore, in baseball cap and rumpled sweatshirt, button-holing congressmen and corporate CEOs in pioneering films such as "Roger and Me" (1989) and his
Palme d'Or-winning "Fahrenheit
9/11" (2004). Or Morgan Spurlock, cheerfully beating corporate America at its own insatiable game in "Super Size Me" (2004), his Oscar-nominated, first-person participatory saga of eating only McDonald's for a month.
Sebastian Junger, who was an accomplished journalist and bestselling author ("A Perfect Storm") before making "Restrepo" with Tim Hetherington, says he believes that "it's the documentarian's job to go beyond what news reporting can afford to do and really reach in deep to the nation's psyche." At the same time, he says, "It behooves us to hew to a fairly straight and narrow line" — lest, for example, documentarians lose journalistic legal protections to shield confidential sources.
"I think the documentary community needs to have a serious conversation on how it defines itself," he says.
But what about documentaries that aspire to something beyond straightforward journalistic reportage?
"Exit Through the Gift Shop," by far the most controversial of this year's documentary nominees, purports to be the true story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles. The movie's plot twists multiple times, until the film becomes, among other things, a comic meditation on the commercial hype and fraudulence surrounding the contemporary art world.
Is it entirely true, as Banksy has insisted, or at least partially fictitious? And, either way, should we (or Oscar voters) care?
Some film critics have indicated that we shouldn't. Roger Ebert, awarding the movie a thumbs-up, wrote that, although he thinks the movie is real, "the widespread speculation" that it's a hoax "only adds to its fascination."
Oscar rules governing whether a film can be classified as a documentary are pretty clear, according to Arnold Schwartzman, a member and former chairman of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' documentary film screening committee.
A few years ago, he says, the academy began requiring all documentary makers whose works are submitted for Oscar consideration to identify, in writing, all parts of their films that are staged re-enactments. That requirement has made it easier for committee members to decide whether a given movie can rightly be considered a documentary, says Schwartzman, whose film "Genocide" about the Holocaust won the Oscar for documentary-length feature in 1982.
In the decades before the rule was implemented, controversies had erupted around a handful of critically acclaimed films that didn't get Oscar nominations, such as Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), about a Texas death-row inmate's case, which used reenactments.
Schwartzman believes that "we really do have to distinguish" between fictional and documentary films. "They're two different animals," he says, "and if we're going to have a category about nonfiction films, then we shouldn't allow it to slip into the other area, and that's why that wall was made."
But that distinction is getting harder to preserve in a culture that fosters a constant interchange between fact and fiction in books, movies, television, theater, visual arts and music. Consider that another of this year's Oscar-nominated docs, Josh Fox's "Gasland," is an investigation of America's natural-gas-drilling industry that the filmmaker describes as "part verité travelogue, part exposé, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown." Fox says that in recent years he's seen "a huge movement in documentary films" in terms of stylistic variety and innovation, "and I don't see that in any other category."
"Documentary is an art form, it's not just reporting," Fox says. "The world is so weird that you have to portray it in a way that feels real."
The interchange between fictional films and documentaries cuts both ways. In an interview last October with the Toronto Globe & Mail, Charles Ferguson, director of the fifth of this year's nominated documentary features, "Inside Job," about what caused the 2008 global economic crash, credited his narrator, Matt Damon, with helping to strengthen and streamline the movie. "He was a great contributor to the film and made good suggestions on parts we knew were weak," Ferguson said.
Questions about truth in documentaries go back to the early days of cinema. Robert Flaherty's classic 1922 silent film "Nanook of the North," about an Inuk family, used staged events and a bogus igloo built for the camera crew. John Ford's "The Battle of Midway" (1942), which shared the inaugural Oscar award for documentary, was more U.S. government propaganda than impartial news account.
But Spurlock believes that audiences today are embracing more experimental documentaries in part because so much of the mainstream media has come under the ownership of corporations with opaque agendas.
"More people started to gravitate toward documentary films because there really isn't a responsibility to anyone except the truth," says Spurlock, whose latest, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," is simultaneously a sendup and mock celebration of the use of product placement, sponsorships and other blatant marketing ploys in movies.
"Whether it's a YouTube clip or something off the Huffington Post or Vice magazine, people went looking for other places besides traditional media outlets … to give us some real information," he adds.
Yet even Spurlock has found himself questioning whether a film presented as a documentary is actually real. He recalls the experience of watching "Catfish," about a mysterious Facebook romance between a Michigan woman and the filmmaker's brother. The film caused a sensation at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and sparked a debate about its veracity.
After seeing the movie, he recalls telling the filmmakers: "If this really happened, this is unbelievable. But if it didn't, it's the greatest fake documentary I've ever seen."
Asked if it matters whether "Catfish" was fact, he offers a comparison between that film and "The Social Network," whose creators have acknowledged that their portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is a composite of fact and invented drama.
"As 'The Social Network' was a great dissection of the birth of social media, I think 'Catfish' is a great examination of the reality of the world of social media, where literally nobody is what they seem; anybody can be anybody they want," Spurlock says. "But at some point, that façade will get broken down. But the question is how long will it take, how long can you keep up the ruse, and then how long can you keep up having some sort of a double life?
"I think just that comment on 'things aren't always what they seem' is a great examination of where we are as a culture."