True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become an inspiration for adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, a fictionalized version of the story told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall: Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.
While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.
We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plan some quality based-on-a-true-story double-features.
The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)
Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.
I don’t believe that we in the West can truly comprehend the magnitude of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s courage and accomplishments as a filmmaker since he was arrested in 2010. Prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” he was officially sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden from making films for twenty years. The government has kept the sentence hanging over his head as a form of intimidation. They must be stymied by an artist who refuses to be intimidated.
Panahi’s response began with the defiantly-titled This is Not a Film (2011), which he shot on a friend’s video camera and his own camera phone and smuggled out of Iran in a thumb drive hidden in a cake (call it a cinematic jail break). Then he proceeded to make two more films, which have played around the world.
Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.
In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.
Writers and critics have likened the experience of watching movies to dreaming with your eyes open for almost as long as moving images have been projected in front of audiences in dark rooms. But in reality the dreams that movies show are more like the stories we tell ourselves or the fantasies we imagine in our waking lives. When filmmakers attempt to actually recreate the nocturnal odysseys churned up from anxieties and obsessions and the residual thoughts and images scattered through our unconscious minds, they are more like expressionist theater pieces or symbol-laden action paintings. Think of Spellbound, with its Dali-designed sets and loaded Freudian symbolism representing the unprocessed issues of our troubled hero. These films satisfy our idea of “dream” or “nightmare” but don’t actually capture the experience or texture of those twilight journeys which seem to make sense in the moment as they slip from one idea to another but confound us as we try to piece them together when we awaken. If movies are dreams, they have been tamed and rewritten to fit the demands of narrative storytelling.
That’s one reason why I love David Lynch’s waking nightmare Eraserhead and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s haunted-house fantasia House (a.k.a. Hausu). They recreate dream logic in ways that almost no other films do. Is it coincidence that both films first saw the light of a theater screen in 1977? Creative serendipity or primeval synchronicity? Lynch might appreciate the idea of some sort of Jungian breakthrough in such different cultures. They are, after all, the feature debuts of two filmmakers who learned to express themselves cinematically in the world of experimental film. The similarities end there, however. Each of these films spins its own unique dream in its own crazily weird way.
My films tell a little bit of the history of Italy.
More than a decade before the French New Wave, a generation of Italian film critics and cinephiles challenged the high gloss and low ambitions of the Italian film industry under Mussolini with a wave of films that addressed social and political life during and after World War II, movies shot in the streets with a rough immediacy dictated as much by threadbare production resources as by stylistic choice.
Carlo Lizzani was not simply shaped by Italian neorealism. He helped create it. As a film critic and an active leftist, he wrote manifestos promoting neorealism and wrote a respected history of Italian cinema in 1952. He co-wrote and assisted on the productions of Roberto Rossellini‘s Germany Year Zero (1948), Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Alberto Lattuada‘s The Mill on the Po(1949). He made documentaries before making his feature directing debut with the resistance drama Attention! Bandits! (1951), a film he got made by organizing the workers of Genoa into a filmmaking cooperative, and he returned to documentaries at the end of his career, making films about the great Italian directors he knew and admired: Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis. His love of cinema and his passion for politics and history came together in his 1996 feature Celluloid, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City.
Between these poles, Lizzano had a thriving career making genre films—westerns, crime thrillers, war dramas—in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than simply a matter of necessity. He loved genre pictures. They were also a superb vehicle for smuggling political commentary into popular cinema. It was a good fit for a filmmaker with an affinity for rebels and outlaws.
In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty‘s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.
But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”
Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.
Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.
Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.
These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.
Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made KingKong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.
For a brief period between 1913 and 1924, the most sophisticated, mature and visually majestic films were coming from the Scandinavian countries in general and Sweden in particular, a trend that impressed Hollywood so much that the studios started importing artists from the Scandinavian film industries: Victor Sjöström (who became Seastrom in Hollywood), Mauritz Stiller, Benjamin Christensen, Lars Hanson and of course Greta Garbo. One of the unique qualities of this regional cinema was the embrace of the landscape as an essential part of the stories. Where Hollywood filmmakers of the 1910s generally scouted locations near the studios (when they didn’t try to construct their own worlds on studio stages), Sjöstrom, Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness and the mountains to find majestic views and epic vistas unseen in other national cinemas, a fitting backdrop for characters driven by powerful psychological and emotional forces. The roots of Ingmar Bergman, whose natural landscapes are much more intimate yet just as expressive and evocative of his themes, can be traced back to the silent era; he cited Sjöström as one of his most important inspirations and influences and paid tribute to his legacy by casting him as the old professor in Wild Strawberries.
Who was Gregory Ratoff and why isn’t he better known? A Hollywood fixture on screen, behind the camera, and in Los Angeles society for more than thirty years during the heyday of the Hollywood culture factory, this stocky, stout Russian émigré made his screen debut in the David O. Selznick production Symphony of Six Million (1932). He appeared in a handful of subsequent Selznick movies and soon became part of David O. Selznick’s inner circle as actor, director and gambling buddy. When he made the leap to directing, Selznick kept him busy turning out romantic comedies, action pictures, and other lightweight star vehicles.
As an actor, his Eastern European looks, squat nose and heavy accent made a natural at playing foreign villains, émigrés, and ethnic comic relief, and he embodied the cliché of the excitable, deal-making show biz impresario in films like What Price Hollywood? (1932), as the grammar-mangling studio producer trying to control the three ring circus of his film projects, and All About Eve (1950), as an anxious Broadway producer that you could almost see getting ulcers on the spot. As a director in his own right, his career is less distinctive—you won’t find grad students writing auteurist appreciations of his vision or see film retrospectives at the Lincoln Center—but he was prolific, making some thirty films in some twenty-five years all while he continued acting. He even tried his hand at producing.
“[I]t’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or anything else…. The producers were heroic and got it made, and there isn’t anything I had to compromise—except no sets, and I was happy with the other solution, as it turned out, even though I was kind of in love with all the work I’d done. Still, I was happy enough to scuttle it, as I always am.”
–Orson Welles on The Trial, from This is Orson Welles
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil(1959) is now celebrated as a masterpiece, but the version released in 1959 was not the film that Welles had intended and it was largely dismissed as a glorified B-movie. It had been for Welles one last attempt to make films inside the studio system and he brought the film in on time and on budget. Yet Universal thought that his labyrinthine nightmare of a crime movie was too dark and confusing for audiences and took the editing from his hands. Welles’ famous fifty-eight-page memo (which became the basis of a 1998 revision undertaken by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch) was politic, polite and even supportive of some of the changes made by Universal’s editor as it made the case for editing refinements. Welles played by the rules right to the end, attempting to work with the producers rather than fight them, but it became clear that Hollywood simply did not want the kinds of films that Welles made and he left for Europe. Never again did he work with the budgets or the resources of a major studio production. That was his trade-off for creative control.
The Trial (1963) was not Welles’ first project after Touch of Evil—he started shooting Don Quixote in Mexico and Spain and made a series of documentaries for Spanish TV—but it was the first film he completed after leaving Hollywood.
When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.
It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.
“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.”
—Joshua Oppenheimer, interviewed by Jessica Kiang at Indiewire
American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is a 1997 Marshall Scholar, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award (the same year that Alison Bechdel was so honored), and director of Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2012). From his earliest films, he’s experimented with new forms with which to explore big themes and historical forces, and he’s explored issues of representation and “truth” inherent in the form in articles and books on the subject of non-fiction and documentary.
“In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present,” he explained at the 2015 Based on a True Story documentary conference. “No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.” It’s the quantum physics of filmmaking: the act of observing changes the behavior of the observed. His solution is to incorporate the tools and the practice of filmmaking into the structure of the film.