There have been numerous films which blur fact and fiction, documentary and narrative, which question versions of the truth..
The Night it Rained, an excellent Iranian film in the 60s, presented different versions of an incident in which a boy was proclaimed a hero for stopping a train from disaster. It followed landmark fictional films like Citizen Kane and Rashomon which had different subjective presentations of a life/an incident. Abbas Kiarostami has frequently blurred boundaries, and/or referred to the film-making process in films like Close Up, Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry.
Our Beloved Month on August by former critic Miguel Gomes, is set in and around Arganil, a riverside town in the hilly heart of Portugal. The film develops beyond showing locals at work, at play or recounting events; the main thread becomes not only concerts given by a local music group but also the close relationship between the young female lead singer, her guitarist (and rollerskate hockey playing) cousin, and her father who raised her when his wife ran off or was abducted by aliens. And with multiple layers involving the film-makers and locals turned actor, it becomes increasingly hard to tell fictional events from reality.
I find the film refreshingly free of self-importance- free to go beyond regimentation and careful planning (as with the multiple arranged dominoes at the beginning, disturbed by an apparently fictional producer). We have different accounts of a man’s injuries from being attacked/run over/jumping from a bridge. A female forest fire look-out is shown at her mountain-top work, then later a fire is beautifully filmed, involving a fictional rescue reported in the real local paper. A scene with 2 young women in the river as a Belgian trio come to make acquaintance recalled for me Rohmer’sThe Green Ray.
A most peculiar and rich film that is staying with me, in wonderment at how the mind of Gomes was working, weaving such fine threads from locations, characters and occurrences.
Albertina Carri’s “The Blonds” comes to mind, the film itself being a documentary about the director’s search for witness accounts regarding the disappearance of her parents during the Argentine military dictatorship in the late 1970s, though an actress is playing the role of Albertina Carri and does all the talking.
Robert Kramer made use of a similar technique in “Route One/USA”, an on-the-road documentary that portrays the hidden sides of the States, thereby introducing a fictional character named Doc who connects to the people and begins to work with them.
Patrick Keiller’s “Robinson in Space” would be a third example of a fictional character in a documentary being used as a pretext, in this case “Robinson” creates a bond to the places the director visits and serves as a possible way to explain cultural, ecological and economical facts without an obligatory didactic tone.
There are also fictional sequences in Kazuo Hara’s masterful documentary “A Dedicated Life” which are used to illustrate the writer Mitsuharu Inoue’s fictional retelling of his own past, may it be in his books or in interviews. The fictional night scene in which Inoue gets disappointed by his early love is one of the most touching scenes of the entire film.
The blurring came very early, with L’Arroseur Arrosé, without which Alice Guy’s Cabbage Fairy might have been first fictional film. The German classic People on Sunday is another, Bunuel’s Land without Bread confuses people as to whether documentary, mockumentray or mockumentary documentary, This is Spinal Tap was a mockumentary that fooled some.
The quote on Gomes’ home page here is “Cinema is a game”. And this fits nicely the scene in Beloved Month when 2 young women approach the film crew asking if they can appear in the film (which ironically they are doing), are told the crew are working- as they play Quoits. And what was the prupose of the dominoes being lined up, beyond making the point of best laid plans v improvisation?
Godard said cinema was truth 24 times a second. Film fiction can tell important truths, while its “factual” films, like the so-called News on TV, can be more a matter of lies, selectivity and propaganda.
Oh, and in Portuguese writing we’ve had Fernando Pessoa’s alter egos
Beloved Month had something in common with Gruff Rhys’ Separado, a playful documentary/ genre-hopping film centred on musical performances in different places and whose ending has us wondering about the singer’s veracity and true purpose. It also had a guitarist playing in a helmet; one a motorbike helmet, the other a power ranger helmet
I think there was also an interesting mubi list on fiction in documentary, but I can’t seem to find it right now.
Come to think of it, with The Green Ray, a fiction film, we had not only improvisation but documentary moments, with the old man talking, and the group of women getting an explanation of how the ray itself comes about.
A Rohmeresque moment in Beloved Month
Dark side of the Moon is a somewhat amusing exercise in how existing footage can easily be taken out of its original context and constructed into a documentary which appears to be “truthful” about something entirely fictional (it can be viewed on YouTube).
here’s a list: is this a documentary? to which i would add nicolás pereda’s summer of goliath, lots of guerin and chris marker and herzog, the silence before bach, notre musique, i travel because i have to, i come back because i love you, putty hill (which i’ve not seen yet) and oh….tons more if i thought about them…this is my favourite kind of film….
and this list: fiction as real life how could i have forgot borat?
and….the lovers’ wind, latest from the dadaer, on the bowery, je veux voir, zilnik’s oldtimer, robert j flaherty, the mouth of the wolf, many sokurov – the last i watched being confession…
what about the quince tree sun, and some of ulrich seidl’s stuff? and how could i forget herbert achternbusch’s excruciating beer battle?
Not to forget Apichatpong’s “Mysterious Object at Noon”. The way fiction and documentary blend together in “Our Beloved Month of August” plus this rural/“folklore” stuff reminded me a lot of Apichatpong’s film.
Not to split hairs, but I think we need to male an important distinction between fact, truth, and documentary forms. I think Bazin said that cinema is about dealing with the facts of reality, about taking views of that reality. What I think this thread’s concerned with is a mixture of doc and normative narrative forms. What’s incredible is that the Lumieres were already completely aware of this and often played with the forms in their actualities in order to introduce a discrete slapstick gag that, in one short, comes only after 30 seconds or so of anonymous folks walking in a city street.
Attention to this issue increases in importance all the time, but I guess a question that comes to mind is: why bother making these distinctions when it comes to films like Catfish or Exit Through the Gift Shop? This tension between forms has been around since the birth of cinema (think of how many classic Hollywood films use fake newsreel), but after F for Fake, it’s been a self-conscious reflexive move. Why do we still point it out in contemporary films? We need to do something else with it, think about it in different ways.
Some self-reflexive/ self-referential films can seem dry and artifical, whether following a fashion or trying for profundity. Others have a looser, more natural and engaging appeal. For me, Our Beloved Month of August fits the latter group.
Here’s a review by Jonathan Romney, an excellent writer, in Sight & Sound:
“A hybrid work of bewitching perversity, the second feature by Miguel Gomes is perhaps the only film ever to end with an intervention by its own sound recordist – one that, more than anything the director himself says, sheds light on the film’s underlying principle. In one of numerous self-reflexive moments, Gomes complains to recordist Vasco Pimentel that his film has acquired “phantom sounds” that shouldn’t be there: songs have somehow found their way into recordings of natural sound. Bang on cue, an MOR ditty strikes up in this epilogue’s forest setting, like the magical noises on Prospero’s island, while Pimentel explains his job as he sees it: to filter out the superfluous, and to hear the essential.
Named after one of the film’s songs, Our Beloved Month of August in its documentary mode is partly an account of summer pastimes in Arganil in rural Portugal, partly a portrait of the moderately talented but enthusiastic amateur show bands that enliven village fetes. Their speciality is cheerful MOR fodder, numbers that combine sentimental lyrics with irrepressibly, sometimes incongruously, bouncy tunes and rhythms. Like Xavier Giannoli’s The Singer (2006), built around the French equivalent of such material, Gomes’ film urges us to move beyond musical snobbery and hear the essential: this repertoire not only carries a weight of expression, however conventional, but also supplies the social cement of rural communities.
This is indeed a film about community at its most tight-knit: the long-established local newspaper, we hear, is fondly regarded as a ‘family letter’. Population and family appear as mirror images of each other, hence the bipartite structure of the film, which begins as a documentary (at least, a self-reflexive documentary-in-progress) and then develops into a fiction about a family so close it’s riven with actual or potential incestuous stresses. Cousins fall in love and a father apparently cherishes improper desires towards his daughter, herself the doppelganger of a mother who either ran off with a lover or (as father and daughter gloss in an ambiguous tête-à-tête) was abducted by aliens.
Our Beloved Month is a film in search of its genre, rather than its subject matter. As much as a documentary or a drama, it is also a musical, its songs no less its true subject than the real and fictional people we meet. The music is continually framed so as to undermine the film’s stability: early on, for example, we seem to be hearing a song played live at a village fete, only for it suddenly, in mid-flow, to become a record played by a local radio DJ who announces furthermore that her station is delighted to be involved in a film.
Another continuous thread is the self-reflexive farce in which Gomes – depicting himself as a glumly ineffectual townie – noncommittally faces up to the challenge of film. Early on, his (fictional) producer walks in and ruins a complex arrangement of dominoes intended for the opening credits – a neat joke on the futility of over-organisation. In a key comic scene, Gomes and his crew play boules while blithely ignoring two young women who have answered their ad for amateur actors – though we know his film depends on recruiting people such as them. Finding the right presences for the camera, Gomes explains to his producer, is the whole problem: “I don’t want actors, I want people.” The joke at this point is that he has already found them: the producer is played by Joaquim Carvalho, who reappears later as the father of a teenage daughter.
Documentary and fiction merge so teasingly that it is sometimes hard to tell them apart: when two locals, recruited for supporting roles, chat off-duty about their troubles with the chaotic shoot, it appears to be a nicely casual piece of staged improvisation, but reportedly (reportedly, I stress) Gomes simply recorded them without their knowledge.
For all its self-referential complexity, this is also a tender and perceptive portrait of a richly ordinary enclosed world. The film’s interest in unspectacular but intriguing everyday people – such as the somewhat tragic local celebrity Paolo – has much in common, in a far more artificed way, with Raymond Depardon’s series Profils paysans. At the same time, Gomes’ indeterminate melding of reality and fictional game-playing is closer to the mountain-set DIY comedies of Luc Moullet, or Andrew Kötting’s round-Britain travelogue Gallivant.
The film ends with a conventional narrative event – although the incident itself is elided, obscured by impressionistic, gorgeously red-hued images of a forest fire. The payoff, at least, is the phrase “Nephew Saves Uncle” – which becomes a real headline in a real local newspaper. We don’t, alas, get to see what the same paper eventually says about Our Beloved Month of August, but the people of Arganil would surely concur that Gomes has done them proud."
@ Mr Kaiser, yes the film reminded me of Apichatpong as well as Rohmer (who’s been compared to Joe), and i think that stems from the lightness of touch, warmth (both emotional and weather), sense of freedom and feel for nature. There was one beautiful shot of the young couple on a bridge, as a procession crosses it and a canoe passes underneath.
When you make distinctions between these two kinds of doc, could it be that you’re speaking to their relationship with a transparent style?
I suppose I have to see Our Beloved Month before I can comment for sure though.
I don’t know! What strikes me about the film- and in a way i regret having said or quoted anything here on the events, as it may best be approached completely fresh- is that it’s no academic exercise in layering, but has a zest for life and the rich possibilities in both documentary and fiction, one springing naturally from the other. As Romney says, it isn’t always clear which is which. This may say something about what acting there is, fine lines between the staged and observed. It’s hard for me to express what i want articulately. It grew surreptitiously and unexpectedly, became richer and more involving as it went on, the main relationships catching hold of the film, after lots of different shoots explored in the locality and the film-making process. Till half way through i thought it interesting but nothing exceptional. My love of Portugal may help, but it was much more than that. It is growing in me even now, a sense of meanings and connections that may come in their own time.
It’s hard for me to express what i want articulately. It grew surreptitiously and unexpectedly, became richer and more involving as it went on, the main relationships catching hold of the film, after lots of different shoots explored in the locality and the film-making process. Till half way through i thought it interesting but nothing exceptional. My love of Portugal may help, but it was much more than that. It is growing in me even now, a sense of meanings and connections that may come in their own time.
Kenji, I had the same kind of experience. Nothing exceptional, almost banal, not even an idea of what this film is about and where all this stuff would lead to in the end. But afterwards it felt like everything happened in the most natural way. A very strange effect. It is hard to explain… It definitely grew on me after the actual film experience. Strange film!
*To me Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad and Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room are two of the finest recent examples of docu-narrative hybrid cinema.
The Rules of the Game: A Conversation with Miguel Gomes
Scope: In Our Beloved Month of August, there’s an awareness of the rules of fiction and documentary, and their absurdity, and the willingness to keep some and throw others out and not worry about the consequences.
Gomes: Maybe that’s why I’m now writing a script that has two parts, again. I never thought about these two-part things, maybe it has something to do with creating rules and then destroying the rules you created, imposing another set of rules, and seeing how the rules in the two parts are mixed, or clash, or something like that.
Scope: What rules did you have while making this movie?
Gomes: I had one golden rule. As we were invading this place, Arganil, so we should be in this film. Because we were demanding the locals to play characters, we had to do the same. And everything that was brought with us from Lisbon should be in the film. So every piece of equipment is in the film—the camera, the tripods—that was a rule.
Scope: Why was this so important to you?
Gomes: The film is a clash between cinema with this part of the country, so us and everything that was with us should appear. Normally there is behind the camera and in front of the camera, and this time I wanted to put everything in front of the camera, and even what’s in the middle should appear—which is the camera.
Scope: Some people don’t get this point, and think the appearance of the crew—and you—in the film is, well, self-indulgent.
Gomes: Yeah, they call me a “wannabe Fellini.” But I think it was only fair to do it. In this part of Portugal, they don’t have cinema, or theatre…but I think it’s a film about the common desire of making films.
Scope: For making films or making art in general? Is the guy who jumps off the bridge a filmmaker?
Gomes: This guy Paolo Miller is a simple character. But he’s always acting. He was completely drunk all the time, but he kept acting, almost until he passed out. I let him do his own mise en scène, and it’s the centre of the first part. In the first part I’m looking for people to play characters, and I couldn’t ask him to be a character in the second part because he’s already a kind of character in the first part. The other people give him roles, so in a way he’s bigger than life. And you can see he’s lying, he’s acting. So he concentrated his movement of the film in himself, which is why I chose not to ask him to return in the second part.
Scope: It’s easy to say that the difference between the two parts is that one is documentary and the other is fiction, but that’s not quite accurate. Maybe it’s this point, that in one part the actors are making the mise en scène, and in the other part you are. Is that accurate?
Gomes: Yeah. At least, I’d like it if people think of it in that way.
Scope: It’s not exactly true in one sense—when I was watching the second part again, I was looking at the camera style and trying to see if there was a noticeable difference in the way that scenes were shot…
Gomes: No, I tried not to. I even tried to prevent my cinematographer from putting equipment in the shots, but he snuck things in—you can still see them. But it could not exactly be the same because we knew what was going to happen most of the time. Anyway, some of the scenes with the most explicit mise en scène were in the first part, in the scenes with my producer, and the dominos…those Spaghetti Western scenes.
Scope: When you initially began the film, was there this idea to problematize this traditional fiction-documentary divide? Did the film’s structure develop just in the way as you see it happen on screen?
Gomes: No, it’s not like in the movie, there were no dominos… but yes, we intended to do a film with more than a thousand extras, and it was really making a film with normal cinema means. We were going to try and control the concert scenes. I was trying to do something between what’s in the film and maybe a Minnelli film, something close to Meet Me in St. Louis (1944),for example.
Scope: And then did you realize that there really isn’t a point to constructing this reality? Because you can just take a camera to a concert, shoot the concert, and you’d get the same thing? If not better?
Gomes: Yeah, yeah. And we had no money to do it. My producer told me there was this guy who was going to give money to the film and then he died before he signed the authorization. Seriously. Then we had no money.
Scope: To get back to this idea of fairy tales, I’m wondering how you see Our Beloved Month of August in this sense. Fairy tales are supposed to have morals, but maybe your film reworks the fairy tale in not having a moral, or maybe having a dubious moral—like the critic in Vienna who hated the film because he said it was “pro-incest.”
Gomes: When you arrive to this shot where the girl cries and laughs at the same time, in a normal film this shot should be the moral shot, but, in this case, things are a little bit mixed, she’s crying and laughing at the same time, you can’t tell if it’s the character or the actor who is either crying or laughing… I think the moral may be in that shot, but I’m not sure what it is.
Scope: Maybe moral is the wrong word. We can talk about structure and process, but what were you after in making the film?
Gomes: Well, many things. I wanted to show local stories and the relationships between these people, for starters. I like also the idea of making a summer film—boys flirting with girls—and then also the, well, pro-incest part of the film, this tragic thing, more melodramatic, with the relationship between the father and the daughter…I know I used some rules of the documentary, like using voiceover… so there is a moment where you think you are watching a documentary. But I don’t like documentaries in general because I think they know too well what they are documenting, and in this case I didn’t know what I was documenting.
Gomes: For instance. You remember at the beginning there’s this scene with this English guy and this girl from Lisbon who have this bar—it’s the guy’s birthday and he cuts the cake with an ax—and there are lots of people from England, mostly freakish people, neo-hippies. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing in that scene. I knew he was going to cut the cake with the ax, and I enjoyed that idea so I wanted to film that. And then I talked with them, and I didn’t know what was going to happen…
Scope: In that scene you’re talking off camera in English, and if you had a plan, you wouldn’t be doing that…
Gomes: Yeah—I was off camera, and I started to understand that something funny was happening, that the shot was becoming about translation, and about the relationship between the two of them. And that’s good—I thought it would be a boring talk, I would cut it in the editing, but things were happening. You just have to be open to be led in another direction—while you’re shooting. That’s also a rule.
Scope: So when you got to the editing room, and you had all of these scenes, did you know you’d have this flowing structure?
Gomes: When I was there for the first time, in the summer of 2006, I just didn’t know what I was going to do. There was a script and I knew I had to return to the script in some way. And—this is one of the biggest lies in the film—I already had some of the actors already cast, like the cousins (Hélder and Tánia). But I filmed them like the others, as if I found them there at the moment. I filmed about four weeks the first time, then I thought about it, then shot two more weeks, two weeks after. Then I added this material from the first shooting and I asked my screenwriter to be involved in the editing, and I asked my editor to be involved in the rewriting of the script. Because it was almost the same thing. And then we understood, let’s make this first part of the film seem like we’re looking for characters. Maybe if we can convince Joaquim Carvalho—who is Pedro Costa’s producer, you know—to play the character of the producer and the father, just have those scenes with me and him, then he will be a character. So we imagined this structure, we wrote the scenes on cards, decided here the dominos will fall down, here the girl will go to the crew to ask to be in the film when they are playing quoits…
Scope: Did you shoot those scenes already?
Gomes: No, I had the girl, and then I went and shot the scene. And then we just rewrote the script and tried to make some connections between the first part and the second. And it wasn’t very hard, because there aren’t many people, they aren’t doing that many things, basic things—drinking, walking with the parade…It’s easy, but only if you have the time to do it. We had the time because then we shot again in 2007, all of the fictional scenes. If you look at the girl for example, you can see that she’s much fatter…
Thanks a lot for that. I forgot to mention the fox at the beginning- what an image, those eyes looming large into the hen coop.
Good call on In Vanda’s Room. All three of the Fontainhas films exist in bizarre interplays between the reality of the neighborhoods, their crumbling facades and unique public spaces grafting themselves into (for the two latter works) in a sea of video noise which along with narrative, impose a certain sense on the space that isn’t generally there.
The incestuous elements that alienated at least one critic mentioned in the interview are handled in a way i like- the cousins’ relationship as natural and well-suited, not full of angst or guilt, and while the father’s protective-possessive-controlling side tips over at one point to a physical rebuff, that discomfort is not dwelt on or made a mountain of.
Philippe Garrel: Elle a passe tant d’heure sous les sunlights, les haute solitude, etc.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Anybody mention A Man Vanishes?
Also Kim Ki-duk’s Real Fiction