Everyone knows that documentaries construct the reality they depict. But not all documentaries acknowledge this construction. It’s one of the longstanding divides in nonfiction film, separating cinema verite (in which the presence of the filmmaker is acknowledged or implied in the proceedings) from direct cinema (in which filmmakers try to function like flies on the wall).
Two new documentaries, Actress and Approaching the Elephant, both of which recently premiered at the Missouri nonfiction mecca True/False Film Fest, embody these two opposing strategies in extremis. While Actress is a self-conscious hybrid doc that blurs the line between staginess and spontaneity (pushing it far afield from the direct cinema tradition), Approaching the Elephant is a more traditional observational film that, except for one visual element, straightforwardly represents the reality it encounters. While the former grants us extreme access to its central character’s subjectivity, the latter gives us none.
Directed by Fake it So Real director Robert Greene, who also produced and edited Approaching the Elephant, Actress stars real-life thespian Brandy Burre (of Seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire) as she navigates that familiar conflict between domesticity and career aspirations. The film opens with a highly composed shot, recalling Todd Haynes via Douglas Sirk, of Burre, clothed in a bright red dress, cleaning dishes at her sink while offering a confessional monologue via voiceover, which, we will later learn, comes from The Wire. Soon after, there’s an evocative close-up of Burre putting her finger in her drain and trying to push out bits of green food to avoid clogging. Both sensual and disgusting, the shot clearly announces that Actress is not your typical documentary.
Even when Actress switches to a more conventional approach, capturing Burre interacting with her kids or talking directly to the camera, it feels slightly phony. Whether that’s because it is actually staged in some way or because Burre just naturally “performs” in real life, it’s never exactly clear. And Greene never resolves it for us; in fact, he accentuates it. At several points, he either plays up the theatrics, using aestheticized slow-motion cinematography accompanied by crooning folk ballads, or undercuts moments of what might be actual intimacy; during one tearful confession, tinkling piano music subtly counteracts the sincerity of the scene.
As the film goes on, Burre’s heightened dramatics start to feel more believable—or it may be that viewers simply become more accustomed to them. Then again, it could be because Burre herself becomes more accustomed to Greene’s camera. Either way, the film ends on another ambiguous note, rooted in questions of perception and the roles that people play in real life. One of the penultimate shots is also fantastically dreamlike—a startling slow motion, over-exposed tracking shot that seemingly comes of nowhere, and yet, perfectly encapsulates Burre’s plight. It’s overtly staged, and yet, strangely faithful to her reality.
On the other end of the documentary spectrum, Approaching the Elephant chronicles the first year in the life of an experimental elementary “free school” in New Jersey, where kids learn through experience, interaction, negotiation and democratic principles. And it’s fucking bedlam: kids run wild, scream, threaten and hit each other, walk on rooftops, yell for “emergency meetings” to resolve incessant conflicts and shout for order where there is none. “What are you mad?” the film’s founder Alex Khost says of his own project. “Yes!” he replies with his wide eyes.
But Approaching the Elephant offers only a glimpse into the motivations of Khost, or that of the parents, who have decided to subject their kids to this madness, or even the kids themselves, who alternate between cute and nasty. Instead, the documentary offers the viewer the same kind of unfettered and unbiased access to its characters as the school itself embodies. While one can’t help but wonder about who these people are, and what kinds of problems these kids have encountered in the past—they’re like younger versions of Breakfast Club archetypes—director-cinematographer Amanda Rose Wilder wants to create a more objective, experiential doc, akin to the work of Frederick Wiseman.
The film’s most formalistic device is to depict the events in black-and-white, which gives the documentary a more timeless feeling. All those longhaired alternative kids could be from the 1970s as easily as from the 2010s. And while that conceit initially pushes the film into slightly stylized territory, it’s quickly forgotten as the viewer becomes embroiled in the film’s world.
By eschewing interviews, context, or any obvious structural signposts, Approaching the Elephant demands patience from the viewer. And it takes awhile to make heads or tails of Khost’s experiment, to determine if it’s an abject failure or some kind of pyrrhic victory.
As different as Approaching the Elephant is from Actress, however, both films ultimately embrace ambiguity. While Actress creates uncertainties and complexities through its mix of documentary and narrative techniques, the credible and the constructed, Elephant’s evenhanded and open approach produces a similar result. It’s a messy and indeterminate world out there, and these films leave it up to the viewer to make sense of it.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.