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Is Truth Stranger than Fiction?
by Kirsten Greco

In June 2002, three filmmakers enter Afghanistan to do a documentary about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Several months later, their videotapes and sound tapes are found by Northern Alliance soldiers in a cave near the border with Pakistan. The tapes are then edited into a feature-length film, called September Tapes.

Well, that’s what the opening titles of September Tapes want you to believe. In reality, the film is a hybrid of documentary and drama, fact and fiction: the latest of a new breed of film that combines the immediacy of documentary filmmaking with the story structure of a drama. The Filmfest Hamburg screened several films of this type, in addition to traditional documentaries, docu-dramas, dramas based on real stories, and of course, completely fictional dramas. What are the similarities between these types of films? Why would filmmakers choose one type over another? And what should we as viewers be aware of when watching these films?

Probably the simplest type of film to define is a drama: a story that is fictional. The characters are figments of the writer’s imagination; the situations in which they find themselves are not based on anyone’s real story. However, even dramas strive for realistic elements – otherwise, we as the audience would not be able to relate to them. The images we see must feel real, including the costumes the actors wear, the sets on which they interact, the lighting of the scenes, even the movements the actors make. The sounds we hear should feel real; the characters we see should act in believable manners. In fact, the best dramas are often the ones that are able to convince us that their worlds are real, whether it be Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, France during World War II in Saving Private Ryan, or another planet in Contact.

When we move away from dramas to documentaries, however, things start to get murky. Generally, the word “documentary” is used to describe any type of film that includes factual elements. From the 1920s through the 1950s, there were also other filmmaking conventions implied by that term, namely that the films were supposed to be a record of “real people” (and thus use real people and locations and not actors and sets) and that there was an attempt to capture the truth of these people’s lives and experiences. As the form progressed, though, some of these conventions began to be blurred. Nowadays, there are many hybrid forms of documentaries. Docu-dramas, such as British film The Hamburg Cell, are fact-based representations/recreations of real events. Dramas based on real stories, from personal stories such as the Albanian film Dear Enemy or the Israeli film To Take a Wife to larger sagas like Iron Jawed Angels from the U.S. or Silmido from Korea, contain a central plot based on real people and real events and add fictionalized elements to better tell the story. Finally, there are hybrids like September Tapes, American film Mail Order Wife and Iranian film Bitter Dream, which are filmed like documentaries with story lines based on reality and often with real people playing “themselves”, but which are actually fictional.

All of these types of films can be effective in conveying a filmmaker’s message, but some work better than others in different circumstances. For example, director Antonia Bird and screenwriters Ronan Bennett and Alice Pearman chose the docu-drama format for The Hamburg Cell because they wanted to try to give audiences an “objective” look at the lives of 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah in the five years prior to the attack. Everything in the film is based on two years of extensive research, including trial transcripts, interviews with people who knew the hijackers, and intelligence information. The filmmakers were determined to stick to the facts and not put their own interpretations on the hijackers’ lives, and they also wanted audiences to think, not to feel, and realize that the hijackers were not easily-dismissed demons but real people. As Bird says, “They were ordinary young men, who came from middle-class families, with money and education. I think that is something we have to confront and be aware of.” For these filmmakers, the docu-drama was the best means to get their message across.

Panel guests at the September 28, 2004, Hyatt Film Talk, including moderator Philip Bergson (middle), Simone Britton (second from right) and Christian Johnson (far right). (Photo by Kirsten Greco)Other filmmakers may choose a particular format because they think it is gives their films a better chance of being shown to a wide audience. September Tapes director Christian Johnston was concerned that a straight documentary about Afghanistan would have no commercial prospects in the U.S. As he said at the September 28th Hyatt Film Talk, “We wanted to bridge the gap between Hollywood and a documentary so that people would go see the film.” To that effect, before going to Afghanistan, he created a plot, wrote a loose script, and had an outline of things he hoped to film there: the search for Osama bin Laden, the difficulty of shooting in a war zone, the cultural gulf between the U.S. and Afghanistan, and what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. However, once there, the footage he got and the access he and his crew were given was dictated by hazard and chance. Some of the footage was real, some was recreated after the fact based on real events that happened to them, and some was completely fictionalized to further the plot. In the end, Johnston figured “if I was lucky enough to get funding and distribution [for the finished film] and get the word out, I could use the context to get my message out.” He acknowledged that the film was created very myopically, but in the absence of being able to solve any of the problems his film addresses, he figured, “at least I can create a dialogue.”

These formats are not as straightforward as they may seem, however. After all, anything that purports to show “reality” is asking for trouble. Documentary films – which may seem to be the most objective type of films – are still, by their vary nature, constructed works. The filmmakers make decisions as to what we, the audience, see and how we see it; plus, having a camera around “real people” is bound to influence their behavior and distort “reality”. Even documentary filmmakers themselves acknowledge this. Director Simone Britton, talking about her film The Wall (about the wall being built between Israel and Palestine) at the September 28 Hyatt Film Talk, said “I don’t make films to explain; I make films to show the world through my eyes. I don’t recreate the world; I choose my angle. I reconstruct it for you through my eyes.” This is an admirable goal, but it is also something that the audience needs to be aware of.

In the end, getting the “real story” from any film requires more work from the audience than just watching it. We, the audience, need to remember that even documentaries should be viewed with a bit of healthy skepticism. We should take it upon ourselves to learn more about subjects of films we like – or even those we don’t like – from other sources. Reading production notes from films (which can often be found on the internet on websites for the films themselves, on general websites like or, or even on a film’s DVD) often provides valuable insights into the motivations of the filmmakers, for better or for worse. And post-viewing discussions with others are always valuable ways to expand our horizons. In sum, it is important to remember the words of French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, that, “film is not the representation of reality, it is the reality of the representation,” and treat films accordingly.

For more information on this subject, see and