Scene from Arrival of a Train

Scene from Arrival of a Train

When many of us think about the differences between fiction films and documentaries, we think they seem pretty obvious, right?. But when the medium of film was just being invented, every film was documentary to some extent. The first movie ever made was footage of the  arrival of a train shot by the Lumière brothers in France in 1896. The film shows a train arriving at a station where people getting off and into the train, without actors and script. It is a documentary in the truest sense of the word.

When the different genres of film appeared, the distinction between documentaries and fiction films became a fairly well-agreed upon standard. Early filmmakers and scholars decided the motivation of a documentary is to inform and confront people with reality, while fiction films were to create an entertaining escape. That meant documentaries had to be nonfiction films. Early scholars agreed that in documentaries, “often action leads the way,” meaning even the directors did not know what was going to happen next. Narrative films, by contrast, mainly focused on telling a story where every action and sentence was already written down.

However, the traditional boundary between documentary and feature stories is becoming more and more vague these days, thanks to the creative ways for both narrative film directors and documentary directors use to tell good stories. For instance, we used to believe that everything in a documentary should be true. But the term “truth” can include literal truth and many other perceptions of the truth. Whether a documentary is true enough can vary from person to person and can be hard to define.

Picture from film

Scene from Der Indianer

In 1988, a German documentary director named Rolf Schübel received a package of diary pages which recorded the life of a dying man named Leonhard Lentz. Schübel wanted to shoot a documentary about Lentz’s story as depicted in the diary., but had no footage of the many events chronicled there. So Schübel decided to use a camera from a first-person point of view to experience Lentz’s diary stories again. So in the film, the audience can see Lentz—the camera—walking into a hospital and hear the doctor tell him–the camera—that he has cancer. Through this technique and the interviews with Lentz’s wife and friends and other people who know him, the audience can profoundly know his life after he got cancer in a film entitled Der Indianer.

Picture of Michael Lumpkin

Michael Lumpkin

This is an experimental way which combines the traditional documentary way of interviewing and re-enactments to recreate the reality of what the film is about. It’s really hard to tell whether it’s a documentary or feature film.  And that ultimately does not matter, as long as it’s a good film that reaches the audience. “Why should I care, if it’s a good film? That’s one of the points of the film, that all stories are constructed, and you do what you do to tell a story,” says Michael Lumpkin, former executive director of the International Documentary Association.

The traditional “A-roll, B-roll, talking heads” model, influenced by journalism, has been challenged more and more by experiments in documentary films learning from fiction films the way of telling stories. While at the same time, narrative film is learning from documentaries to create a sense of reality in its fiction.


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