The Rider documentary MIFF

Can there ever be a truly “truthful” cinema? On the face of it, documentary is assumed to occupy the “non-fiction” category suggested by the fiction of narrative films, but even the sparsest, most naturalistic documentary is inevitably “written” in the edit.

The very act of filming something immediately imposes narrative and thematic implications on the footage, something skewered to perfection by artist John Smith’s 1976 film work, The Girl Chewing Gum, in which Smith’s retrospectively recorded voiceover “directs” footage of a Hackney intersection. Asif Kapadia’s mesmerising Senna (2011) is comprised solely of archival footage and interviews, yet features a “written by” credit for Manish Pandey.

It’s easy to end up neck deep in the worst bong-huffing excesses of second-year philosophical thought when we consider that not even seeing, with our own eyes (the original HD cameras), is truthful.

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What excites me, though, is what is happening on the other side of the fiction/non-fiction border, where aspects of documentary filmmaking have begun to erode and elevate traditional narrative structures — and that’s where two of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) highlights, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Bart Layton’s American Animals, were located.

The Rider is a contemporary western inspired in part by the life of its star, Brady Jandreau, a Lakota cowboy dealing with a brain injury following a rodeo accident. He plays Brady Blackburn, and his father and sister play versions of themselves, as do others (most strikingly Lane Scott, a paralysed former bullrider who improvised, via sign language with one hand, many of his hilarious jabs at Brady). Jandreau is a mesmerising screen presence, nowhere more than in a scene, shot in two 40-minute takes, where he “breaks” a horse “that’s had nobody on his back before”.

It almost feels criminal to minimise Zhao’s masterpiece with phrases like “non-professional actors” or “inspired by a true story”: this is a film of such power and poetry that its form, flying in the face of the expectations of genre and structure, feels utterly revolutionary. It’s also not lost on me that the film, one of the greatest American Films, is directed by a Chinese-American woman and populated almost entirely by Oglala Sioux and disabled people.  

British documentarian Layton also explores the American condition in American Animals, an account of a hopelessly botched 2004 rare book heist by a foursome of privileged college boys. What initially unfolds as a sweet meditation upon male friendship (buoyed by two of the most exciting young actors around, Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters) soon questions the very notion of memory and truth itself as the real book thieves comment upon and occasionally appear within the narrative alongside their actor counterparts.

As the film unfolds, Layton’s effortlessly complex script collides documentary into narrative, and our structural expectations are even lambasted by a hysterical dream sequence choreographed with the nimbleness (and Elvis Presley soundtrack) of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films; the reality of the heist, we learn through both its fictionalised account and the interviews of the men in question, did not unfold as it does “in the movies”. The real victim of their crime, librarian Betty Jean “BJ” Gooch, only appears in the film’s final moments (she is played by Ann Dowd in the narrative stretches), offering a devastating critique of the young men’s inability to work for their own “transformative experience”.

If The Rider is a meditation on the possibilities of a new American manhood, American Animals is an excoriating account of its current failures.

Both films are “movies”, not “documentaries”, but the blurred edges between the two forms are what gives them their astounding power. (It also, evidently, is what irritates film critics; of American Animals, New York Times critic A.O. Scott complained that the film “can’t quite decide what it wants to be”.)

The cultural imperialism of traditional three-act structure can affect the way we view documentary, too. Some complained that James Crump’s Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco (also at MIFF) ended too abruptly, with the credits rolling shortly after Lopez’s death, no doubt expecting a final “act” reflecting on the legendary fashion illustrator’s legacy. To me, it was a perfect ending, as though the film itself was simply too bereft to continue on without him.

(As to whether or not a documentary can be “written”, the Writers Guild of America are big believers that there are more than a few ways to write a film, including a documentary, and they don’t necessarily involve scripted pages.)

These hybrid forms are an emerging theme at MIFF. At last year’s festival, my pick of the bunch was Denis Côté’s masterful (and criminally under-viewed) “hybrid documentary”, Ta peau si lisse, which explored the competitive lives of a number of bodybuilders and a professional wrestler and strongman. That film unfolded apparently as traditional if minimal documentary before the true nature of its hybridity unfolded in its astounding final stretch. In those 15 or so minutes, the men took a group holiday to the countryside, pulling classic bodybuilding poses in fields (the strongman, unable to join in, wandered off to eat berries alone in the forest) and sharing clearly directed but utterly bewitching moments of emotional intimacy.

The boundaries of hybrid-documentary, docu-fiction and narrative drama are forever shifting, making it easy to end up in infuriatingly semantic discussion (typically in a queue outside a MIFF venue) about where, officially speaking, documentary ends and fiction begins. But it’s within those liminalities of form, structure and genre that the most exciting work is being created.

American Animals will be in limited release in Australian cinemas later this year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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