Which Fiction in a «Vision du Réel»?

G: The debate between documentary and fiction seems to be outdated. But – as initially suggested by Jean Perret at Filmexplorer’s Café Critique during the online edition of Visions du Réel 2020 – this can often amount to an undefined and inflationary “hybridity” being uncritically accepted. 

E: In our postmodern time it has become fashionable to make assertions, such as: there is no such thing as documentary! Everything is fiction. And so what? Blurring the line should never be an end in itself. When you argue that x and y are merely the very same thing, you forget the initial tension between them. This is a pity - without tension, there is no thinking. The overlapping of fiction and non-fiction should not be taken for granted. It is always an aesthetic choice, something that is always actively sought for.

R: For a festival – and an “idea” – like “Visions du Réel”, an inflationary hybridity or an overlapping that is taken for granted could sound very problematic. Which are the relevant aspects of fictionality that positively (or negatively) contribute to a documentary film that is conceived as a “vision du réel”? This seems to me the relevant question to raise.

E: And also, the question of reality, which is intrinsic to the idea of “vision du réel”. On the one hand, there is the elusive notion of reality (le réel), which, on the other hand, can only be grasped through a medium, a vision. A film that is a vision du réel deals creatively with the two ends of the spectrum. It challenges the very idea of reality by emphasising the act of vision.

G: …and the subjective point of view of the filmmaker, who accepts showing, in different ways, her/his own perspective within the film.

E: In other words, it is aware that the medium of film is not innocent.

Let’s take an example: Is Tony Driver a vision du réel? One could argue that it is the case, since the film problematises the idea of documentary by building up a cinematic language that borrows from fiction. To my eyes, Tony Driver is a sort of remake of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas. Its story, character and aesthetics are so alike. It is a documentary that is told as if it were a fiction. Yet, one could also argue that it is not the case, because, on the other hand, it does not problematise the idea of fiction. The film makes use of aesthetic codes and narrative patterns that stem from a fiction film, but it does not create anything new as such. To be a true vision du réel, it should not only show that documentary can be told as a fiction, but also that fiction can be told as a documentary.

G: I think that Tony Driver, in a way, is able to problematise the fictionality that it uses. For, with the exception of its problematic finale, the film makes evident the fictional element played by its character. We see that the main “character” is actually playing in front of the camera. As it is the case for the presence of elements of making-of within a film the exhibition of fictionality does not balance but rather enhances the non-fiction in the film.

E: More than the assumed fictionality in the film, I am interested in its finale, where the tension between fiction and non-fiction becomes obvious. This is a fertile ground for cinéma du réel, which does not amount to the mere hybridisation of fiction and non-fiction, but has to be understood as a productive dialogue between both, where one challenges the other in a gesture of mutual reinvention. Pyrale is quite a good example of that. The director grounds various fictional aesthetics and narratives (sci-fi, love story, coming of age, etc.) in a documentary setting (a village dealing with a moth invasion). Reality thereby becomes open to fiction, which, on the other hand, merges very easily with, and thrives on it.

G: Moreover, I would say that the tensions between fiction and non-fiction take here an unusual and intriguing form: the fictional aspect (the love story) is not explicitly showed as fictional but juxtaposed to the non-fictional aspect (the moth invasion). The result is not hybridity but polyphony between fiction and non-fiction.

R: In front of this polyphony, I would like to also question the position of the viewer. More in general, what specifically interests me here is the dimension of performance and loss of control. Something between balance and imbalance, where the physical dimension plays an important role. 

For example, in Love Poem, the performance of the camera with and/or against the performance of the characters affects the viewer , leading to challenging and eventually transforming his/her point of view. Sometime he/she has to make a choice and take a stand. It is this triangle of performances between camera, characters and viewer that fascinates me in general. It is a kind of three-dimensional framework, where certain agreements have to be set up. And then the borders, the limits are tested, without really knowing how far the characters (actors/non-actors) and the camera can go, and how far the viewers can follow them. Here the work of editing can be decisive, like an invisible heartbeat. However, from the very beginning of Love Poem, the filmmaker’s dispositive is on the table. 

G: Yes, in this film all is showed, insofar as it clearly plays with the ambiguity between fiction and non-fiction – we are constantly pushed to ask: are they playing or just living their lives, or a mixture of both? Contrary to the non-thematic ambiguity of Tony Driver’s finale, the superposition of layers in Love Poem – they’re playing that they’re playing that they’re playing and so on – makes the fiction/non-fiction ambiguity a theme of the film: it is an explicitly shown ambiguity.

Even if Tony Driver, Pyrale, and Love Poem approach the use of fictionality in non-fiction film in three different ways they share a common feature: fictionality is explicit, through exhibition (Tony Driver), through contrast (Pyrale), through hesitation (Love Poem). This perspicuity seems to keep a dialectic tension between fiction and non-fiction, in this way exemplifying a “critical” hybridity between fiction and non-fiction.

R: The unambiguity of the fiction is probably a sort of minimal element to create tension between fiction and non-fiction. To my eyes, the loss of control of the limits between them – which is often conveyed by specific choices in the work of editing – will constitute the essayistic core of a “vision du réel”.

E: And this would join Jean Perret’s inspiring statement, which has contributed to the launch of this discussion: «The films du réel off-centre the gaze, they do not so much bring into play a reconciliation with the world, but a deepening of its irreducible otherness, its beauties and hideousness». The idea of “vision du réel” seems to necessarily refer to cinematic essay.


E: Émilien Gür; G: Giuseppe Di Salvatore; R: Ruth Baettig