Documentary vs. fiction … and how to use an inverted tool

I went to see Marshall Curry’s new documentary, RACING DREAMS, last week. It’s an engaging, intimate film that follows three adolescent kids through one year of Extreme Go-Kart Racing competitions – a sort of warm-up little league to the big time of NASCAR. Annabeth Barnes of Hiddenite, North Carolina, pictured below with her dad, is one of the film’s charming stars. In one pivotal year, we witness her move away from childhood and toward the precipice of adulthood, a subtle and moving transformation.

The two other protagonists, Josh and Brandon, have significant dramatic arcs as well. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but think about the old reliable adage about doc versus fiction storytelling: while fiction film must strive for an organic, complicated reality that allows the audience to ‘buy’ the authenticity of the imagined world, the documentary must strive for an heightened, almost simplified sense of the purely dramatic. Archetypes embraced!

In RACING DREAMS, true that. The film’s scenes, often notably short, make a point and move promptly along to the next. The editorial team is clearly cherry picking lines of ‘dialogue’ from mountains of talk, looking for the gem that will help build the build. And as they should – doc storytelling is about finding the thread in the noisy, chaotic reality of recorded life – intersected, interrupted, incomprehensible. RACING DREAMS features montage scenes that hit hard: “here is where Annabeth falls in love,” “here is where Josh understands his dream.” In a fiction film, such blatant signifying would read as simply insincere, cliché, or a mockery. Why is it so acceptable, and so enjoyable, in documentary? Somehow we can accept bold strokes when we know the source is living and breathing; real.

Another film in theatres right now (and RACING DREAMS will open soon) is the Dardenne brothers’ LORNA’S SILENCE.

The Dardennes, who should be dubbed the darlings of Cannes, are often referenced as documentary-inspired. Why? Because their films feel so much like life; so seamlessly organic (and always with little to no score). Again, this is technique, plain and simple – the material is 100% scripted, blocked, acted, cut. The Dardennes’ characters, always in trouble, find themselves in uncompromising scenarios – a baby is sold for cash and then the transaction is regretted (L’ENFANT), a man is responsible for the death of an immigrant laborer (LA PROMESSE), a woman tries to help her junkie boyfriend (LORNA’S SILENCE).

Clearly, the Dardennes set out to make you feel as if you are there, that it all legitimately unfolded and is ‘realer than real.’ No love or dream montage here – it’s moment-to-moment living, all subtext, what’s never said. The interesting thing to me is that the goal is most likely the same as in RACING DREAMS, to move an audience to a broader epiphany about humanity or a more laser-like realization about self. It’s almost as if these switch-em-ups, be big and bold with the real and small and subtle with the pretend, are like counterintuitive tools: use the cloth to make it rough and the hammer to make it smooth. If only more filmmakers would – then we’d have more RACING DREAMS and more LORNA’S SILENCE.

View the trailer for LORNA below, as well as Tribeca Film Festival footage (and film footage) from RACING DREAMS:

“Racing Dreams” – Tribeca Film Festival 2009 – Watch more Videos at Vodpod.