What is creative nonfiction? Why don’t we just stick with the word documentary? Through quotes from Penny Lane, Tabitha Jackson, and more, we explain what the term means to us.
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In 2016, Seventh Row Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney interviewed filmmaker Penny Lane about her bizarre nonfiction film, Nuts!. The interview was a turning point for Seventh Row, because it’s when we were introduced to the term ‘creative nonfiction’ as an alternative way to describe ‘documentary’ films that were more than just information dumps. We’ve used it ever since, including in the title of our upcoming 2021 Creative Nonfiction Workshop.
But what does ‘creative nonfiction’ even mean? Here’s Penny Lane on why she uses the term:
“To say that NUTS! is creative nonfiction is helpful, if people knew what that meant. It’s more descriptive than ‘documentary’. Somebody might say that this isn’t a documentary, and I’d know what they mean. It’s kind of not. It’s kind of a fiction film that just happens to have nonfiction elements. To say it’s creative nonfiction would be helpful to communicate to an audience what’s happening.”
In Lane’s eyes, labels are most useful as a way to shape audience expectations. It’s something we’ve heard echoed by several documentary filmmakers. Here’s Pacho Velez, director of Searchers and a teacher of nonfiction, explaining how he labels his classes:
“I usually refer to what I do as nonfiction filmmaking. That’s how I label the classes, rather than documentary, because I do feel that documentary invites more journalistic-minded students that I have less to offer.”
Relatedly, The 2021 Creative Nonfiction workshop is for people who want more from their documentaries than journalism. Indeed, if the term ‘documentary’ tends to put you off because you’ve learned to associate it with dry information delivery, then this workshop is for you. Creative nonfiction films are a form of subjective artistic expression which directly engage with how the story is told — often in a meta way with the audience — and by whom. They’re films that explore the boundaries of what it means to capture ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ and they craft an emotional experience for the viewer rather than simply walking you through the facts.
A great introduction to how to define creative nonfiction film, and the many conversations and questions surrounding it, is our nonfiction filmmaking masterclass with Penny Lane and Carol Nguyen (director of the wonderful short film No Crying at the Dinner Table), conducted last year. You can watch and/or read it here. Nguyen beautifully summarises creative nonfiction filmmaking here:
“Once you [introduce] a lens and a frame [to a real scenario] and make a decision on how you tell a story, it’s not completely true. The biggest difference, to me, between documentary and journalism is that there’s some artistic opinion around the story whereas journalism is supposed to tell the thing as it is.”
As Lane explains, it’s much easier to evaluate the truth of a fact written down or stated in words than it is to evaluate the truth in image-based storytelling.
“Storytelling in and of itself is not necessarily a true or false proposition. A story is a story. An image is an image. An image can’t be true or false. You can make any image you want. It’s not a lie to do so. You can have a narrator or a person in your film say something, and then you could evaluate that as a true or false proposition. But you can’t say [whether] two images next to each other in a sequence are true or not.”
Lane’s film Nuts! Includes many animated sequences and blatant falsehoods, so is it still a documentary? Maybe not, if you look at ‘documentary’ through the traditional, established lens. But in our eyes, it’s certainly creative nonfiction. In creative nonfiction, you can use staged or invented elements through which to frame the truth. Nguyen, for example, scripts her nonfiction films:
“Language and writing makes its way into my films a lot. Even in my documentaries, I script things out. I’m a person who likes to organize things by seeing them. Even for No Crying at the Dinner Table, I scripted it out. That means, ‘In this scene, this happens.’ In No Crying, I did pre-interviews before we actually filmed [my family]. I knew the storyline of what each person was going to say and the emotion that they were going to give. I was able to weave that into a script.”
Still, the term creative nonfiction isn’t perfect, and it’s one of many terms filmmakers and film critics are using to describe boundary-pushing documentaries. As Penny Lane points out, the form is so young that the language we use to describe it has only just started developing:
“[We’re actually in] a really early stage in history for this entire form. Film in general is not that old, but [regarding] this whole discourse around what a documentary is, we’re in an infancy period. We’re early in the process of [finding] useful language for what it is we’re doing.”
‘Creative nonfiction’ is as broad as genres like ‘Drama’ or ‘Comedy’, which are full of subgenres — only we haven’t yet named or defined what these subgenres are for creative nonfiction. Animated nonfiction could involve using animation to evoke memory or using animation to recreate historical events. Creative nonfiction may be a personal portrait of a loved one that’s also a self-portrait (like No Home Movie), a personal memoir looking back at an experience (like Dick Johnson is Dead), or a portrait of a community (like Faces, Places). There can be nonfiction elements in seemingly fiction films: the sound design in Residue, the chaffinches and director himself in Arabian Nights, or characters playing a version of themselves in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. Equally, there can be fictional elements in nonfiction films, imagining scenes and dialogue that could have existed, like the actor who plays Orry-Kelly in the biographical documentary about him, Women He’s Undressed.
The broadness of the genre is best summed up by a quote Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute, shared with us when we interviewed her for our upcoming ebook:
“I read somewhere in a book by David Shields this line about the capaciousness of the term ‘nonfiction’. Imagine a drawer labeled ‘non-socks’. Anything could be in there, except socks. It puts you in a different frame of mind. As you open that drawer, or you encounter work, it puts you in a frame of curiosity, like, what is this? Who’s behind it? What’s the perspective? Is this real? Is this authentic? Is this construct? Is this artifice?”
Further reading on “what is creative nonfiction?”
Explore the spectrum between fiction and nonfiction
Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction is a tour through contemporary creative nonfiction, aka hybrid or experimental documentaries. Discover films that push the boundaries of the documentary form.