In 2014, filmmaker Robert Greene, in reference to his ballot for Sight and Sound’s year-end best films poll, wrote: “The long-mythical line between documentary and fiction is now all but completely erased.” Leaving aside the rather dubious claim that such a separation is “long-mythical,” that assertion does highlight the fertile cross-pollination between fictional and nonfictional forms, and the ever-increasing awareness of the possibilities therein. That fusion is evident Greene’s own practice (though he'd bristle at the term “hybridization”), with films like Actress (2014) and the more recent Kate Plays Christine (2016), both of which take the very notion of “performance” as their subject and reflect it onto a cinematic hall of mirrors. But, on a larger scale, that merging of forms is perhaps best embodied by True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri, an annual documentary-focused event that, per its mission statement, “exists in a permeable, inbetween land—bounded by fiction and nonfiction, but also bridging cultures and disciplines.” That's an ambitious, laudable aim, one that the festival's continuing success since its start in 2004 certainly attests to. (It may be worth noting that the festival's name is divided by a slash, and not, say, a hyphen.) As such, it's only fitting that it played three of the year's most singular—and thrillingly dissimilar—documentary releases: Starless Dreams, The Challenge and Rat Film, the latter of which comes to the Vancity Theatre starting today (September 15).
Hailing from Iran, Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams actually played T/F in 2016, when it won the festival's True Vision Award (though it's only become available outside festivals this year). At first glance, it may not be evident how the film, set in the confines of a female juvenile detention center in Tehran, could explore the possibilities of nonfiction cinema. Indeed, there isn't an immediately recognizable formal rupture, no metatextual “hook,” as it were. Indeed, Oskouei’s dominant formal technique is the most direct, the most familiar of the documentary toolbox: the interview. He talks to the teenaged girls—mostly hard cases, in for theft, drug addiction, in some cases violent crime—asking them straightforward questions about their home and personal lives, which they answer with oft-bracing frankness. In concept, that would be a compelling enough documentary: a snapshot of a neglected portion of Iranian society, an avenue for those with no other recourse to tell their stories. The actual experience of watching the film, however, reveals an even more compelling (or perhaps just superlatively realized) vision.
With filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, among many others, Iranian cinema remains unsurpassed in how audaciously, unconventionally and successfully it’s explored the porous border between fiction and documentary. (Masterpieces such as Close Up  and A Moment of Innocence , or more recent works such as This is Not a Film , are exemplary in that regard.) Oskouei, though he's thus far produced only documentaries, nonetheless remains steeped in that larger tradition, if not necessarily its specifics. Understanding the immediacy of the girls’ harrowing testimonies, Oskouei’s questions are direct, but never intrusive. The camerawork complements, but doesn't upstage, though it still allows for subtly expressive moments, nondescript images—a bird on a snow-laden branch, melting icicles, an empty bunk bed—that practically quiver with emotional resonance. In one invigorating interlude, one of the girls grabs the boom mic and begins singing as the entire room erupts along with her in joyous abandon. In the next moment, one girl (mock-)interviews another (the one who had led them in song), and what clearly started as a playful, staged act of narrative agency turns intensely intimate. Performance slips into the real once more.
Forgoing any interviews whatsoever, Yuri Ancarani’s The Challenge (which played the DOXA Film Festival earlier this year) is an altogether different kind of nonfiction work. If Oskouei's film could be said to lie within the tradition of Iranian cinema, then Ancarani's would seem to line up with the projects of the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), which has, in recent years, produced some of the most invigorating and groundbreaking forays into nonfiction filmmaking. (The prime example is Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel ’s Leviathan , a hallucinatory, borderline avant-garde plunge into the workings of a fishing vessel.) Filmed in the sands of Qatar, The Challenge focuses on a group of wealthy sheikhs and their chief pastime: falconry. But the film is as much an ethnographic study of falconry as Leviathan is a fishing documentary, which is to say: the description isn’t inaccurate, but neither does it capture the unique force of the director’s vision. With its astounding, formally controlled barrage of images, The Challenge certainly fulfills the “sensory ethnography” ethos: SUVs snake through the desert, lit only by headlights; off-kilter compositions playfully reference Kubrick (the obsidian obelisk of 2001, the patterned geometries of The Shining); and—best of all—the camera literally rushes through the desert air in an extended POV shot of a falcon in flight. At the film’s best, it’s an otherworldly vision, a re-orientation of space and perspective, an image of the ordinary, rendered alien and absurd. And like the best of documentaries—or movies in general, for that matter—it makes you see with different eyes.
That, in some sense, is the ultimate aim of Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, though, purposefully, that may not be clear until well into its runtime. Ostensibly a documentary about Baltimore’s rat problem, it turns out to be something much slyer and altogether more unexpected. Opening with voiceover about the “origins of the world,” it then cuts to a phone video of a rat trying to jump out of a (Baltimore) trash can. From there, Anthony jumps between various documentary forms—info-doc slideshows, interviews with various eccentric characters, passages of institutional documentation, poetic interludes, among others. Most unique, however, are the film’s forays into a virtual, Google Maps world of its own creation, which it surveys, godlike, in various interludes. It should be clear by now that Anthony’s film does not at all follow a linear progression. His editing patterns, though precise in their deployment, are beguilingly loose in their causal connections. Digressive and free-associative, they encourage various links, yet don’t, for the most part, force a single perspective. As the voiceover intones in its virtual, videogame-like wanderings, the “user” is “a floating point… a null object.”
That's not to say that Anthony, in Rat Film, doesn't have a clear point of view. In its aggressively discursive manner, the film is attentive to Baltimore's social, political and economic dimensions—and extremely persuasive in its indictment of the various forces (such as the historically racist Residential Security maps of the Federal Housing Administration) that made the city into what it is today. But what's astounding and ultimately most audacious about Rat Film is the heightened awareness it creates in the viewer, the sense of (healthy) skepticism regarding the connections borne out by the very act of watching it. The film forces the audience to step back and consider just how tenuous some of its causal links may be, how real its issues, how legitimate its conclusions. Ultimately, it forces one to ask—and keep asking—that most basic, but most essential of questions: true or false?