This is a list loosely inspired by Shirley Clarke’s masterful Portrait of Jason, a feature length study of Jason Holiday, street husler, gay prostitute, and occasional Mae West impersonator. The film is often casually labelled as being a documentary but it is much more than that limiting label would suggest. Jason, who immediately tells us that that isn’t even his real name, is a performer. We struggle to discern the real human being from the character he is creating before our eyes and our inability to resolve all we see or hear, combined with Clarke’s subtle method of obscuring our visual focus during certain passages, creates a disturbance within our hearts and brains that makes the experience as powerful as any in film or literature.
Here is a partial list of films that also blur the lines between fiction and documentary and that also feature fascinatingly unreliable performers or casts.
2. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Hosein Sabzian is arrested after he pretends that he is director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and ingratiates himself with a family by promising to make a movie with them. The film is not only based on true events but some of the footage is real and some is not. When on trial, Sabzian reveals his true feelings about his crimes but both the family and we cannot be sure his words represent his heart.
3. In Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, Costa explores the crumbling Fontainhas region of Portugal mostly through the story of Vanda Duarte. Vanda is a real person who actually lives in the region but it’s not clear how much of Costa’s film is fictional and how much is documentary. What is clear is that Vanda likes to talk about herself and may occasionally see herself and her drug-addiction truthfully, at other times she may not.
4. In Caveh Zahedi’s I am a Sex Addict, Zahedi tells us a bit about himself and his sexual past just before he is supposed to walk down the aisle. Zahedi has many obsessions and he reveals them with a daring sense of detail that makes him more akin to an artist as brave as Robert Crumb than Woody Allen. When he finally gets married we are happy for him but, despite his words suggesting basic fulfillment, we wonder if he can truly be satisfied with his marriage.
5. Vincent Gallo’s notorious The Brown Bunny isn’t in any way a documentary, but the graphic sex depicted near the end of the film creates such an uncomfortable feeling in the viewer, the sense that something way too personal is being filmed, that his character seems to fit in this list.
6. Peter Watkin’s astonishing La Commune (Paris 1871) is not a documentary either, but in Watkins lengthy examination of the 19th century socialist government that controlled Paris for a short time, the actors comment on their roles and on the events they are playing. They are not simply passive role-players, but bring their own opinions and biases to the work. This may be true of all actors but Watkins encourages this kind participation in the creation of the film from his performers because he wants the audience to always be aware that a film is a fiction.
7. Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery is a “documentary” in which Rogosin actually uses both real derelicts and one professional actor to gently examine life on skid row. The performers improvised and rehearsed their scenes. The character Gorman is not the professional but he stands out the most. Is this because he’s the most honest and forthcoming at being himself or a display of natural “talent.” Does it matter? (Submitted by me, but not yet in the database)
8. Mike Akel’s Chalk. It’s the start of a memorable new year at Harrison High. The self conscious Mr. Stroope is convinced that his time has come: this year he will be furnished with the golden title of Teacher of the Year. That is, if his smarter students will just stop using words he doesn’t understand. Peek into Mr. Lowrey’s History class and youâll see that he’s struggling to even call himself a teacher. Woefully inept due to a complete lack of both experience and social skills, he earnestly stutters his way through class. The only interaction his students offer him is when they steal his chalk. Men aren’t much interested in the spunky and officious Coach Webb, but as she says, not all P.E. teachers are gay, and she pines for some romantic company. Her former best friend, the newly-appointed assistant principal, Mrs. Reddell, doesn’t seem to have time for her either, as her new power-post is all-consuming; battling egos, and enduring teacher conferences and her lighthouse-obsessed boss. Coach Webb wonders if her former confidante has forgotten just how hard teaching really is.
Suggested by Adam Barth
9. Sun-Woo Jang’s Timeless Bottomless Bam Movie. Combination of documentary and dramatic scenes build up a mosaic of contemporary life for South Korean teens, including petty crime, sex and life on the streets.
Suggested By Blue K
10. Kazuo Hara’s A Dedicated Life. A documentary profile of the turbulent life of writer and former leader of the Japanese Communist Party, Mitsuharu Inoue, who battled with liver cancer until his death in 1992.
Suggested by Apursansar
11. Su Friedrich’s extraordinary Sink or Swim is a 48 minute personal investigation by the filmmaker into her difficult relationship with her father. Is it about him? Is it about her? Let the sociology majors worry about father/daughter themes, the film is about us and our futile attempts to locate and pin down our true feelings. It could be called “He’s Not there, and neither am I.”
Suggested by Yuki Aditya
12. Caveh Zahedi’s A Little Stiff feature’s the director playing himself in a story about a girl he liked who may or may not have liked him. Zahedi uses the real girl and other people who were actually involved in his little real life drama. By the time his “character” gets around to filming a film about the initial meeting with the girl the lines between reality and fiction are irrevocably blurred. This is a film of subtle glances, speaking tones and difficult intimacy amongst real humans and it is stunning. His 2005 film I am a sex addict is also brilliant.
I welcome other suggestions but i may decline some, such as Welles docudramas (although if a strong case was made I might reconsider) or Howard Stern’s Private Parts, which may fit into the theme but is just complete shit. I have not seen some of the films suggested by others which is a mark against me, rather than against the films or those who recommended them.Read less