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Written byMichael Jarrold

Exploring the Relationship Between Reality and Fiction in Films Misunderstood Genre.

After a much-needed break from fiction and falsities, I like to turn to documentary films for unexpected answers – but lately, I’ve only been finding questions in the subject. The main one being how did the genre come to be and how far have we shifted from its original view?

Well if we stem back to the first piece of footage that captured a sliver of reality, it would be one of the 1400 films from Auguste and Louis Lumiere, a pair of French brothers who patented their own version of the cinématographea sort of filmographic swiss-army knife that could record, develop and project films, each being up to 17 m long, which would run for approximately 50 seconds.

These minute-long films were all recorded between 1895 and 1905, depicting various styles and scenarios; the first of these films being “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.” Of which a crowd of people pour out into the streets from outside the doors of a factory building. This was first shown 128 years ago and would more commonly be referred to as one of the first actuality films, which are essentially a type of film pre-dating documentary filmmaking, separating themselves by not supporting a larger narrative or coherent whole. A year later in 1896, the Lumieres would travel the world with a hand-full of their 50-second gems, presenting them in paid screenings to eager audience members watching the projection of film for their first time.

All of these films showed scenes you would typically see in everyday life – but the initial film I spoke about had 3 differently executed versions, so we know they had to be rehearsed and manipulated in some way. Of course they had films that were more naturally captured, but how natural can something be in the presence of a camera, and does the act of performance itself stop something from being a product of reality?

Well a decade later the Lumieres had withdrawn from the industry to focus on photography, and for the next 20 or so years travelogues took priority as the growing genre in the space of films based in reality. These generally gave insight into different cultures and ways of living that took a lot of liberties in their narratives. Basically acting as a pretence for what American filmmaker Robert Flaherty would do in 1922 with his film Nanook of the North. Where he spent time with an Inuit family as they travelled, hunted and bonded in the northern Quebec region of Canada.

This film presents itself as reality but more so gives a look into how people would have lived 100’s of years ago, acting as a romanticism of the culture and staging multiple scenes in order to provide a greater sense of engagement for the audience. An example of one of the fictionalized details is the scene where a walrus is being hunted for food. At which time the Inuit people had already begun integrating the use of rifles and Western clothing into their everyday lives, but for the sake of the film were directed to use a harpoon.

Now this performative nature might not be that shocking for most people, but I find it quite bizarre that if you research the history of documentaries all of the earliest major touchstones are essentially inauthentic footage presenting itself as such.

This dance between reality and false portrayal only gets stronger in the next couple of decades, namely the 1930’s and 40’s. At the time horrific warfare scarred universal consciousness and began to impact media in a huge way, this impact only being accentuated by the sheer amount of propaganda films being released, one of the most popular being Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. A film that Adolf Hitler himself commissioned in order to continue to feed and tend to a continuously growing strengthened deception. Several scenes in the film were carefully staged and speeches were delivered multiple times for the cameras. But this media still exists as an important piece of history, even in its attempts to blur the lines between reality and fiction, the blurring only gives more context to its intentions, and deepens its significance in history because of it.

That’s where a lot of the complexity exists for me, something can still document reality and not be entirely real. There is arguably more realism in the film because it’s lying to you. Reality can generate false media in the same way that fictitious stories can impact real life. So I feel like as soon as something is captured by the camera it probably isn’t really real anymore. Reality might only truly exist in the uncaptured.


But the closest sense of realism I could find is in the Cinéma vérité sub-genre of documentary, following the WW2 propaganda barrage, taking place from the 50s into the 70’s. This era of documentary appeals to me the most at the moment, as it gets so close to the subject you’re essentially living in their presence, the grit of these films plays its own role too, naturally caused by the technical advances of the time, allowing smaller crews and an ease in the ability to shoot on location. The handheld movements and all the sound being captured in the moment helps to solidify the camera in its environment.

One film that’s a great example of this would be the 1967 documentary Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman, a film in which the patient-inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, are shown in various unjust circumstances, being inhumanely mistreated by the staff and essentially bullied and degraded for their indifference. This is one of the only films through all my research that actually had a significant impact on its subject.

Through controversy of course, it helped unveil the reality of abusive power in these kinds of institutions and gave a fairly objective view of mental illness, which was extremely misunderstood at the time. This film is sort of groundbreaking in how it presents truth to an audience, by revealing imagery in a way that’s so clinical it has no other choice but to morally confront the viewer in a manner that’s able to invoke social change.

But from this point on there weren’t really huge leaps in the way documentary filmmaking was utilized, if anything the forthcoming shifts and changes were more so stylistic, like the exploration in the 80’s by having no accompanying dialogue in a film like Koyaanisqatsi, or a movie taking the form of a mockumentary, where it can either use controlled fictional elements to speak on real-life events or as a way to parody the presentation of the stereotyped documentary framework.


Currently the use of real life in media is mainly echoed in the presence of reality tv, which is its own entertaining but manipulative space. Or there is the extreme inverse but stylistically borrowed format that’s found in an experimental show like Fishtank Live, in which its contestants are streamed 24/7 to an audience who are able to impact their lives through paid for digital currency. The media that has a deeper connection to social issues and the unveiling of hidden truths tend to be found on a platform like youtube now, from a more modern journalistic approach like Channel 5 for example.


So at this point I don’t really see documentaries overall as something aiming for an objective view of reality, but more so being a style of filmmaking or a way of presenting ideas. Reality is nothing more than an attractive term when tacked onto media and what you gain from its distinction probably has more to do with your beliefs than the way in which it presents itself in relation to any kind of truth.


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