Now in its third year, the Markers program of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival is the fest’s destination section for viewers seeking works that blur, interrogate, or otherwise push the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking. Where the great majority of documentary films still essentially posit a one-to-one relation between reality and their representation of that reality, the films that find their way to Markers foreground the fact that — to paraphrase Chris Marker, the legendary French “film essayist” after whom the program is named — the fictional is not the opposite of the non-fictional, but rather its lining.
As Markers programmer Jesse Cumming noted when speaking with Realscreen, the titles screening in this year’s selection manifest that element of the fictional in a variety of ways, from re-creation to imaginative speculation to, in at least one instance, pure deception. But by thus troubling non-fiction’s relationship to reality, by playing with the language of “traditional” documentary, these kinds of works throw into greater relief the fact that, like all languages, that of documentary is a construction — and, further, that those aspects of reality they present to viewers need to be actively read, not just passively consumed.
The interview below has been edited for concision and clarity.
There has been a long tradition of non-fiction films that push the envelope on traditional documentary language, but there seems to have been a real explosion of this kind of work over the past decade or so. What do you think are some of the factors that have contributed to this?
I wouldn’t be able to give a definitive answer, but if I would be able to offer one suggestion it would be the acceptance of this kind of filmmaking in a traditional art-world context, which typically has different funding streams and different means of capital than independent documentary filmmaking. Whereas in the latter case you typically have to try to put together funding from multiple sources, in the art world you’re able to get money from galleries, museums and/or collectors to make commissioned work.
In the past 20 years we’ve seen a lot of people who were traditional documentary filmmakers move into that world because it was the only way for them to make a living. Look at someone like Harun Farocki in the decade before he died: he was able to shift from single-channel documentary essay films into really thoughtful installation work that was able to provide him a living that his [previous] work never did.
So I think the fact that this is where the money is a lot of the time, and the fact that [the art world has] embraced this type of filmmaking really goes a long way. As we’re talking today the Venice Biennale is opening, and it’s showing a huge amount of moving-image work, a lot of which looks to be non-fiction. Once you tap into a market that’s so vast and so well-funded, it only makes sense that there’s more of this work that’s going to be produced.
If this mode of non-fiction filmmaking has found a secure foothold in the art world, how much do you think it has been integrated into the programming for festivals that are dedicated to strictly documentary filmmaking?
JC: We’ve seen a lot of this kind of work in bigger festivals like TIFF, and more niche festivals like Images have been showing work like this for a long time, and documentary festivals started noticing this as well and have really tried to make space for it. I can’t help but feel, though, that this is still in its early stages — not just at Hot Docs, but in general. I think it’s kind of a wait-and-see moment to see whether or not these kind of films have staying power at documentary festivals.
I think of something like the boom-and-bust of VR over the past decade, which was very readily embraced — particularly on the doc circuit — and has held on in some places, but has also fallen out of favor a little bit. So I’d like to think that as this work is shown more, and as audiences get more familiar with watching this type of hybrid or experimental or non-traditional work, that [these films will] be able to make a [permanent] place for themselves in these kind of festivals.
Obviously one of the defining traits of the films in Markers is that they are, to some extent unclassifiable, and very much not like each other. That said, what are some of your guidelines when considering films to include in the program?
JC: I’m someone who loves things that work in balance, so one of the considerations I had when I was conceptualizing this program was having a balance between some works that are a bit more accessible and others that are a bit more challenging. Particularly because this program is still somewhat new, I didn’t want it to be too alienating for someone who maybe wanted to dip into it for the first time. And beyond that are the other balances I like to have in terms of gender parity, representation (both ethnic and geographic), and generationally as well: it’s really nice to have James Benning and other legends here alongside new or emerging filmmakers.
Sometimes Markers is spoken of as the bleeding edge of documentary, but I like to think of it as the bleeding edges: there are a lot of different ways in which these films shoot off from traditional documentary form, so I like to try and have a balance of these different modes that filmmakers are exploring.
Documentaries are often defined more by what they are about – i.e., their subject – rather than how they’re made, whereas in Markers the films put form front and center. In this year’s selection, what are some of the ways you see the filmmakers using their form to articulate their subject, particularly in those cases where the subjects touch on larger social and political issues?
JC: I think that, a lot of the time, traditional documentary is positioned in an educational context, and I like to think that, in their own ways, the films in Markers can be educational as well — if anything, they’re teaching you about different ways to watch and appreciate non-fiction cinema. And that isn’t limited to Markers, either. It’s nice to see that there’s a lot of experimental work in the broader Hot Docs program — I think of something like Mi dos voces by Lina Rodriguez [in the Canadian Spectrum], which is very much a film that explores form and content in a very deeply imbricated way.
That film also rhymes with a lot of titles in Markers in terms of an interesting play with obfuscation, about what we see and what we don’t see. One of my favorite films in the program is Jet Lag (pictured) by Zheng Lu Xinyuan, which is in ways a very direct and personal film: it’s very close to her in showing her as a filmmaker, an artist, a daughter, a lover. But then when she shows discussions with people who are living through the military coup in Myanmar, she literally can’t show their faces for risk of reprisal [against them], and so she uses AI to obfuscate their faces and voices in ways that seems interestingly at odds with the raw and personal element of the film.
Another example is This House by Miryam Charles, which plays a lot with fiction and non-fiction in treating the death of [the filmmaker's] cousin in a quite ghastly murder. She takes elements of what [actually] happened, the autopsy and so forth, and then spins it into something speculative — it’s an imagining of the life that [her cousin] didn’t live, rather than a true-crime investigation. So it really pushes our understanding of how we can look at a life lost [in this way] as a tragedy, but not in a way that’s “gritty” or salacious.
As you mentioned earlier, this year’s program contains the new film from James Benning [The United States of America], who of course is a legend in “hardcore” experimental cinema circles. What do you think are some of the implications and/or the benefits of framing a filmmaker such as Benning through a non-fiction lens?
JC: Benning is another example of an artist who started off in the experimental world and has moved more toward the art world in the last 20 years. This film is a particularly tricky one to consider under the banner of non-fiction, and it’s not the only film in the program that is less “truthful” than it could be. But even though the material that’s in the film is maybe not tethered to the real world in the way it’s positioned, I think that gives us a really interesting question to consider: where is the fine line between what is fictional and what is non-fictional when you are still filming the real world, in the most literal sense?
So I think it’s very interesting to talk about this kind of work within a traditional documentary context. We’ve been having conversations about how scripted and “truthful” documentaries are for decades, and while a lot of the work in Markers may fall under the heading of “hybrid” in the way they mix fiction with non-fiction, I don’t think these films are that much more constructed than a lot of the other films that are showing elsewhere in Hot Docs. So I think that it’s worth having these conversations not just about the films in the Markers program, but about those in the festival’s other programs as well.