Orla Smith explains how putting together the 2021 Creative Nonfiction Workshop has changed how she thinks about both fiction and nonfiction.
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A few years ago, I never would have called myself a “documentary fan”. And yet now, I’m preparing to help run Seventh Row’s two-month workshop on documentary cinema. Why the sudden change?
It’s not so much that I changed, but that I came to realise how learning about documentary filmmaking opens your eyes to all aspects of cinema: fiction and nonfiction. I also realised that the narrow box I’d placed documentary into in my mind is, in reality, so much wider than I could have ever imagined.
I want to encourage you to attend The 2021 Creative Nonfiction Workshop even if you don’t consider yourself someone who’s particularly interested in documentaries. That might have been me even just a year ago, and yet the year-long process of putting together this workshop, and the ebook that accompanies it, has fundamentally changed the way I watch (and make) all movies.
I’m a filmmaker, a film critic, and a film lover. All of these things — every aspect of how I interact with cinema — has changed a lot over the past year.
In that time, since Seventh Row decided to work on the Creative Nonfiction Workshop, I’ve interviewed dozens of documentary filmmakers, and each one has made me question (and in some cases, even change) the way I interact with film.
I define “creative nonfiction” as any kind of documentary that pushes the boundaries of what we traditionally consider documentary to be. Perhaps more than any other type of filmmaker, those who work in creative nonfiction are constantly asking big questions about the nature of storytelling. Who has the right to tell a story? Is the camera a weapon, or a constructive tool? Should documentary be about depicting “reality” or “truth”, and what is the difference between the two? Is an edit a lie? Is it important to make the line between fiction and reality clear? Is it even interesting or worthwhile to do so?
These questions are constantly being actively discussed in the nonfiction filmmaking community, and it strikes me as a shame that they’re not being discussed in fiction, as well. If there’s a little bit of fiction in every nonfiction film, is the reverse not true, as well? If on location shooting is used in fiction, there’s a documentary element to the environment, even if the story itself is made up. An actor in a fiction film may be playing someone else, but if they have similar experiences to their character and are using emotional recall to play them, is there not an element of nonfiction to their performance?
Working on this workshop has helped me to realise that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is completely fluid. When a filmmaker embraces that fluidity, the art is often much richer.
Now, when I make a film, I ask myself what moments of nonfiction I can include in a fictional story to ground it in truth. When I’m making nonfiction, I let myself make things up and reenact events if it will better communicate the truth of the matter.
When I watch and write about fiction films, I ask the same questions about ethics, intentions, and truthfulness as I do when watching and writing about nonfiction. When I examine nonfiction films, I let go of the idea that truth means absolute fidelity to reality, and instead, focus on how the filmmaker is translating reality for me.
The 2021 Creative Nonfiction Workshop is going to be about asking these big questions, and exploring them together. It won’t just change the way you think about documentary — it will change the way you think about cinema as a whole.