People are in a pickle about what to call American Splendor. The Sundance and Cannes film festival favorite – directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini – centers on Harvey Pekar, an underachiever who achieved notoriety with his autobiographical American Splendor comics. A fascinating man who defies categorization, Pekar deserved a film that does the same, Berman and Pulcini thought. To this end, animation and adaptation as well as drama and documentary elements have all been assembled in one film. Pekar himself narrates and at several points in the film, the real-life characters appear in the same frame as the actors portraying them. The result is a film that weaves together the real with the unreal, but never blurs fact and fiction. So, what does one call this hybrid?
Springer Berman and Pulcini say American Splendor is a work of non-fiction. ‘We had all these comic books, which was kind of like having raw footage,’ says Pulcini. However, noting changed timelines and scripted dialog, both insist the film, unlike their previous projects (the duo were behind docs Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen and The Young and the Dead), is not a doc. ‘You are held to a higher truth standard when you say you’re making a documentary,’ says Springer Berman.
That documentary is such a hallowed word is causing consternation among those who make a living in the non-fiction industry. Like any language, the cinematic tongue is constantly adapting to the times. However, where fiction programs are expected to develop in new directions, documentary is held hostage by its moral guardians. Criticism of liberties within the form have only intensified as documentary and drama snuggle up together.
Those wagging their fingers at doc-makers aren’t without merit. Documentaries are factual films, not fact-based. Audiences need to trust that, and confusion can be costly. But if viewers are to stay, producers must be allowed to express reality using modern turns of phrase.
Springer Berman and Pulcini did just that. Call it what you will, American Splendor moved cinema a step forward. And, although it would be ill-advised to try to emulate the film’s approach, its technique could serve docs well.