As a succession of photographs that give the illusion of movement, the issue of realism has historically been a very important one for film theorists and scholars. The great realist theorist Andre Bazin, for instance, divided filmmakers into two groups — those who believed in the image and those who believed in reality — and spoke of film having an asymptotic relationship with reality, getting ever closer but never quite intersecting.
Founding father of documentary, Scot John Grierson, meanwhile defined documentary as the creative treatment of actuality — a definition that, when unpacked, arguably allows for a variety of (ab)uses.
With Grierson’s definintion in mind we here present a season of films in which the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is deliberately blurred. This is(n’t) Spinal Tap…
Culloden + The War Game
Peter Watkins | UK | 1964 / 1965 | 69 / 48 minutes
Both these films were directed by Peter Watkins, one of the masters of the imaginative documentary.
In Culloden Watkins uses the device of a modern-day news team covering the 1745 Battle of Culloden as if it were today (i.e. the 1960s), complete with to-camera interviews, stentorian BBC-style voice of god commentary and suchlike.
In The War Game Watkins presents the effects of a nuclear strike in the vicinity of a small British town, showing the reality of Protect and Survive type propaganda, much to the annoyance of the establishment of the time.
It Happened Here
Kevin Brownlow | UK | 1965 | 93 minutes
Made on a minimal budget by two filmmakers who were teenagers when they started the project, It Happened Here presents an image of a 1944 UK that has been occupied by the Nazis since the success of Operation Sealion in 1940.
Man Bites Dog / C’est arrivé près de chez vou
Rémy Belvaux / André Bonzel / Benoît Poelvoorde | Belgium | 1992 | 95 minutes
This Belgian black comedy presents three student filmmakers accompanying an amoral, racist, homophobic, cheapskate serial killer/assassin and gradually moving from mere observers of his crimes to participants in them.
Forgotten Silver + Behind the Bull
Peter Jackson / Costa Botes | New Zealand | 1996 / 2000 | 50 / 22 minutes
Written and directed by Costa Botes (who?) and Peter Jackson (who needs no introduction) this 1996 New Zealand production charts the discovery of forgotten New Zealand film pioneer Colin McKenzie who, amongst other things, invents the tracking shot, the zoom, and colour and sound film. All completely fictitious of course, as would be obvious to anyone with a knowledge of film history. Much like UK comedian Chris Morris’s Brass Eye special Paedogeddon there were, however, many who did not get the joke — as is explored in Botes and Jackson’s retrospective follow-up.
Chris Smith | USA | 1999 | 107 minutes
Unlike the majority of the other films in the season this is an actual documentary. It documents the attempts of filmmaker Mark Borchardt to raise the finances for his dream project, a quasi-autobiographical coming of age story, by completing and selling the horror short Coven. Some refused to believe that Mark and those in his circle, such as his best friend Mike, were real, instead seeing the film as a spoof – until Mark and Mike went on tour and showed that, if it were an act, it was one they were living 24/7.
Brothers of the Head
Keith Fulton / Luis Pepe | UK | 2005 | 93 minutes
Constructed out of retrospective footage and present-day interviews from those who were there, Brothers of the Head chronicles the rise and fall of conjoined twins fronting a 70s rock band. As the tagline says “For some people… Rock & Roll was always a freak show.”