Best Documentary Hybrids – A Curated List

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Although documentarians claim to represent truth in filmmaking and narrative moviemakers tout their ability to entertain and transform through fantasy, the line between truth and fiction in filmmaking is — and always has been — blurry. In ‘hybrid documentaries,’ nonfiction filmmakers use narrative filmmaking techniques — reenactments, special effects, animation and other such elements — to effectively deliver story elements essential to conveying the film’s subject and theme. Collectively these outstanding films illustrate the many ways in which narrative filmmaking techniques can be used in documentary filmmaking without compromising the genre’s standards of authenticity, transparency and journalistic ethics. Here, in alphabetical order, is my curated list of the best:

The Arbor:

thearbor In The Arbor, London-based artist Clio Barnard uses an unusual, fascinating and effective amalgam of documentary and narrative styles to tell the story of Andrea Dunbar (May 22, 1961 – December, 20 1990), the gifted English working class playwright who wrote three autobiographical plays before she died at age 29 of an alcohol-related brain hemorrhage. Working with audio recordings of Dunbar’s surviving family and friends, she uses lip-synching actors to reenact events in Dunbars troubled life. Read my review.

Blessed Is The Match – The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh:

blessedisthematchposterBlessed Is The Match – The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is the heartbreaking World War II story of a young Jewish women, Hannah Senesh, who’d emigrated from Hungary to Palestine before the outbreak of World War II, but later joined the British Army, parachuted into Yugoslavia and tried to secretly reenter her native country in a valiant attempt to save the Jewish community–including her mother–from death at the hands of Hungarian Nazis. Director Roberta Grossman effectively recreates scenes from Hannah’s life and laces the film’s voice over narration–read by the wonderful Joan Allen–with Hannah’s poems and excerpts from her diaries. Read my review.

The Cove:

thecovenightvision Directed by Louis Psihoyos, The Cove is an Oscar-winning animal rights documentary that plays like a thriller thanks to the dramatic use of infra red night vision photography and other cinematic effects that authentically represent actual events as protagonist, Richard O’Barry, campaigns to save dolphins from the annual hunt and slaughter taking place in Taiji, Japan. The film’s mission and position are substantiated with ample verite coverage of International Whaling Commission conferences, and on camera testimony from animal experts and politicians. Read my review.

Dreams of A Life

dreamsofalifeIn Dreams of A Life, British filmmaker Carol Morley delves into the mysterious story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 40-something woman whose decomposing corpse was discovered in a London bedsit — three years after she’d died. Using shadowy reenactments to suggest Vincent’s lifestyle and activities, and interviews with Vincent’s former friends who were found through ads placed in newspaper personals, Morley reveals the moving and provocative story of a lonely woman who was completely forgotten by modern urban well-connected society.

El Sicario: Room 164:

elsicariostillFilmmaker Gianfranco Rosi’s gripping documentary is all about the life and career of a former Mexican hit man who, while working for a Mexican drug cartel, murdered and tortured hundreds of people at the behest of his bosses. El Sicario (hit man), the film’s sole protagonist, appears as the only witness to his life in crime, and he is shot (with a camera, of course) at only one location, Room 164, a rather standard room in a motel that’s located we know not where. But, it is in this very room that El Sicario, in days past, tortured and dispatched his victims.

A Film Unfinished :

unfinished2 (1)Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished is a remarkable holocaust documentary comprised primarily of previously unedited historic footage that was shot by Nazi filmmakers, ostensibly chronicling daily life in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. The cache of raw footage was discovered in a storage vault that had been forgotten for decades. Hershonski uses it to piece together a compelling narrative about the chilling daring of Nazi hype and propaganda.

Garbo: The Spy:

garbothespyposterCatalan filmmaker Edmon Roch’s suspenseful spy thriller of a documentary tracks the life and times of Joan Pujol Garcia, aka Garbo, the daring spy who actually saved the world from Nazi domination by helping the Allies win the Battle of Normandy. Roch masterfully reveals the elusive Garbo’s story with cinema noir style, sometimes using clips from well known fiction features that were based on what was previously known of the real spy’s antics.An authentic thriller!

Man On Wire:

150_manonwireIn his Oscar-winning documentary about the ‘art crime of the century,’ director James Marsh recreates the magic moment on August 7, 1974, when famous French tightrope walker Philippe Petit stepped off the top of one of the World Trade Center twin towers, onto a wire, and walked across space, to the other tower. It was an amazing stunt, and Petit was jailed for perpetrating it. Aside from archival footage captured by news media during and after the event, the film relies on reenactments to show how the stunt was planned and executed.

Molotov Alva And His Search For The Creator:

170_molotovThis first-ever virtual reality documentary follows a fictitious character named Molotov Alva who, armed with curiosity and a virtual camera, leaves his real life to enter virtual reality in search of the creator. Director Douglas Gayeton, who co-created the video game based on Johnny Mnemonic, takes us into the virtual world of A Second Life, the online community inhabited by some nine million residents (or users). While most documentary films tell true stories about real people and situations, this unusual nonfiction feature uses fiction to delve into virtual reality, and is based upon a fictitious character’s search for personal definition, meaning and, ultimately, for the creator.


170_nankingIn this shockingly graphic documentary, filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman use archival footage to reveal the brutal massacre of 200,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers during the World War II occupation of Nanking. Survivor interviews and eyewitness testimony compound the impression of horror. Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff and other actors portray the expats whose diaries and letters recount their desperate attempts to save women and children from rape and slaughter.

Nostalgia For The Light

nostalgiaforthelightPatricio Guzman’s beautifully filmed documentary is an exploration of Chile’s remote and pristine Atacama Desert, an arid area that attracts three groups of researchers, each seeking answers to essential questions: Astronomers study the universe through clear skies. Archeologists seek evidence of ancestral civilizations. Distraught women search for the remains of loved ones who disappeared during Augusto Pinochet’s cruelly repressive dictatorship. With refined, rather pensive voice over narration, Guzman creates a nonlinear story — similar in structure to the fiction feature Traffic, for example — that connects the three apparently disparate searches into a comprehensive and profoundly challenging inquiry into the origins of the universe and of humankind.

On the Bowery:

ontheboweryposterLegendary filmmaker Lionel Rogosin’s first film focuses on life among the winos and vagrants who congregate on NY’s Bowery. Released in 1957 and recently re-released on Blu-Ray and DVD, it stands as an exemplary and entirely successful combination of documentary and narrative production. Rogosin cast actual panhandlers and drunks as his lead characters, then wrote a script to present their interactions and individual stories in a narrative through line, and shot it in the streets, bars and flop houses where he’d found the men. The film is a hybrid classic.

Patience (after Sebald):

patienceaftersebald300 (1)Filmmaker Grant Gee’s exciting essay documentary based on W.G Sebald’s cult-status novel, ‘The Rings of Saturn,’ captures the renowned author’s unique writing style by following the book’s protagonist’ journey of self-discovery on a walking tour of England’s eastern coast. It’s a sort of philosophical travelogue filled with personal observations and notes, musings about history, culture and ambiance, and introspective statements recounting personal memories and impressions past and present. Using stills from the book, plus archival and original footage, Gee follows the route, an inexplicably otherworldly meditative dream-like quality that’s fascinating and unforgettable.


protagonist1Director Jessica Yu’s fascinating and unusual documentary sets the lives of four repentant miscreant men within the larger context of Euripides’ classical Greek dramas, which scenes bridged by Greek title cards. While each of Yu’s subjects confesses in voice over narration to his horrible, anti-social misdeeds, the various stories they recount are acted out by a Greek chorus of puppets that are manipulated by offscreen handlers. Yu’s conceit is as beautifully realized as it is brilliant.

Searching For Sugar Man:

searchingforsugarposterart (1)In his Oscar-winning film, Malik Bendjalloul follows South African fans of Rodriguez, an American songster who was more popular than Elvis in South Africa, but unknown in the U.S. It was rumored that Rodriguez committed suicide to escape the depression of a failing career. Determined to know the truth, the fans set out to find the beloved singer of “Sugar Man.” Using stylish animation to fill in some missing beats, Bendjalloul drums up a thoroughly entertaining music documentary.

Second Skin:

170_secondskinThis documentary investigates the real life social interactions of devoted players of massively-multiplayer online games, and follows several of them into the alternative fantasy lives they live in the cyberspace realm of the very popular ‘The World of Warcraft’ game. Filmmaker Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza bounces back and forth between the real world and cyberspace, capturing the interactions of players and their avatars and smartly presenting the films subjects and theme in a most engaging way. The footage shot in gamers’ homes is intimate, revealing and funny. The graphics that show their lives in cyberspace are superb.

Stories We Tell

stories-we-tell-jpgFilmmaker Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary chronicles her quest to find out whether rumors suggesting that the man she’s known as father for all of her life isn’t actually her biological father. Polley focuses the camera on herself as a character in the film, while she interviews, directs and interacts in preset scenes with the film’s other subjects — family members and acquaintances who can help her unravel the mystery of her parentage. Polley is bravely honest and drama-savvy in pushing the documentary form to reveal her very personal story.

This Is Not A Film:

jafarpanahi (1)Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi presents a day in his own life while he is under house arrest in his apartment in Tehran, Iran, for proposing to make a film deemed by authorities to be critical of Iran’s current political regime, which has also banned him from making films or talking about his situation to journalists for twenty years to come. Obviously staged and transparently purposeful, this fascinating film tells the truth as though it’s fiction and plumbs the depths of the complexities of realities that are created and recreated in film.

Waltz With Bashir:

200waltzrealFilmmaker Ari Folman investigates his own troubling hallucinations and dreams generated by memories of his experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War. The film, produced entirely in animation with Folman’s voice over narration, brilliantly ventures beyond the boundaries of conventional documentary filmmaking. It is a profoundly compelling and creative representation of the horrors of war and their lasting effects on the human psyche.

Copyright Jennifer Merin
All rights reserved

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