In August, I took a small cast and crew to the beach to film a scene I’d written about an exhausted travel writer, sent by his publishing agency to interview a climate change scientist on the Pacific coast. The scene was the conclusion to an epic journey that saw the main character traverse deserts, mountains and cities, interviewing personalities from all walks of life. As it was scripted, the writer character sat through the scene mostly in silence, the oceanographer’s foreboding words about tsunami wreckage washing over him like waves crashing the shore.
There are as many ways to approach a scene like this as there are film directors. But, creatively, you are who you are: I thought underplaying the exchange would underscore its meaning. No witty batter, no proclaimed epiphanies—just a roaring ocean swallowing a snarky, wordsure character with its breadth and complexity, and a deeply convicted scientist with a global perspective pointing the way with his moral compass.
This shoot was clarifying for me as an artist. It revealed my tendency to color over the lines between documentary and drama, between thought and feeling—lines that I’m compelled by temperament to disrespect.
A glance back at film history endorses a more integrated approach to the relationship between documentary and drama than we tend to see in films today. From the dawn of silent-era major motion pictures in 1914 through the arrival of synchronized sound in 1927, the two genres looked surprisingly similar. Actors on-screen were usually seen on elaborate sets from considerable distance, an approach well suited to the period pieces and historical epics that dominated the medium during that era. Entire sequences from silent-era classics like Birth of a Nation and Ben-Hur resemble History Channel re-enactments, and the close-up—with its manifest emotional intimacy—was a seldom-used, controversial device. Meanwhile, the film widely considered the first documentary, 1922’s Nanook of the North, contained staged settings that inaccurately dramatized the day-to-day lives of Inuit people.
The distinction between drama and documentary appeared to grow firmer during the American studio system’s glory years. As the eventual triumph of the close-up signaled a rise in star-driven movies of the ’30s and ’40s, the difference between doc and drama became embedded in the theater-going experience itself. Newsreel documentaries like Why We Fight were the pre-feature entertainment you sat through before Casablanca started.
But the two mediums had a way of repeatedly collapsing. For a decade after World War II, noir flicks like House on 92nd Street and The Naked City blurred the lines between drama and documentary all over again by crafting harrowing fiction based on real cases pulled from the files of law enforcement agencies, and were often driven by the kinds of authoritative voiceovers you’d hear in Cold War propaganda docs. Setting the tone for ’60s New Wave and Steadicam in the ’70s, Primary and Breathless used revolutionary lightweight 16mm cameras to get us closer to other people—physically, emotionally, intellectually—than we had ever been. They opened up a way of seeing, feeling and knowing that’s still palpable today in reality TV, documentaries and independent narratives like Humpday and Old Joy.
To me, the ideal feature film suggests a path where thinking and feeling merge to produce a third sensation I can both feel and imagine. My favorites are Taxi Driver, Malcolm X and Lost in Translation—dramatic works that double as documentary portraits of the times and places in which they were shot. New York’s seedy ’70s, Boston’s regal but segregated ’40s, and Tokyo’s brilliantly overcrowded ’00s are as real as ever in those films. Great narratives can project the meticulous, detailed reconstruction we associate with documentaries, and documentaries can entertain and captivate along with the best dramas. Jazz and Helvetica, for example, use historical events, symbols and raw data to create emotionally intense dramatic arcs.
Popular forms of entertainment sell us a notion of ourselves as split between brains and bellies. We’re told what to watch based on divisive segmentation by class, gender, race and region. Documentaries are for college-educated, affluent city-dwellers; dramas are targeted to men or women based on varying levels of silliness, seriousness and action. The confines of these categories reduce the viewer’s experience to stereotypes, and filmmakers who buy into them limit their creative potentials. This dynamic reinforces itself, deadening what could be a more challenging exchange between artist and audience.
As filmmakers, we’re better than a simple schism between documentaries and dramas; as people, we’re above a distinction between thought and feeling.
Looking out at the ocean that day on the beach, we were looking at ourselves. Like water, we take on the characteristics of our surroundings, becoming as deep or shallow as they are. I wonder what would happen if we carried out our daily dramas as if they mattered in the light of documentary reflection. Because ultimately they do. Whether we choose to recognize the stakes of our actions or not, the dignity of our hearts and minds is on the line.
Shaun Scott is a Seattle-based filmmaker. He was also featured on The Future List in 2012.