New film challenges the boundaries of the documentary genre

From This Is Spinal Tap to I'm Still Here, mock documentaries have been a fictional feature-film staple for years: presented as fact, but entirely the work of the screenwriters' imaginations.

The Arbor Film. Photo Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival
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From This Is Spinal Tap to I'm Still Here, mock documentaries have been a fictional feature-film staple for years: presented as fact, but entirely the work of the screenwriters' imaginations.

And there are too many biopics - based loosely on real stories but romanticised, trimmed and neatly packaged into an uplifting 90-minutes - around to count. We know that An Education isn't the place to look for true facts about the life of the journalist Lynn Barber, on whom it's based; and Marie Antoinette didn't really wear Manolos or listen to Gang of Four, as she does in Sofia Coppola's version of her life story.

But a new generation of films is blurring the line between fact and fiction in such new and innovative ways that it's redefining what it actually means for something to be a documentary. The Arbor, a new British film by Clio Barnard, tells the story of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote plays such as Rita, Sue and Bob Too for the Royal Court before dying in 1990 an alcoholic at the age of 29. The story is told through interviews with Dunbar's friends, family and the three children she left behind - but there's a twist. Actors have been employed to lip synch to an audio track of the testimonies, and this footage is intercut with scenes from Dunbar's plays enacted in the estate where the playwright lived.

This technique sounds convoluted and distracting, but The Arbor works remarkably well. The voices are filled with a complex mixture of regret, sadness, steeliness and humour that would take an exceptional actor to replicate, but using actors' faces and bodies frees up the film visually, making it more than just a series of talking-head shots. The actors perform scenes from the Dunbars' childhood, while the voices discuss what it was like.

If you search for a definition of "documentary" online, one of the top results will be "presenting facts objectively without editorialising or inserting fictional matter." But something The Arbor's methods imply is that it's extremely hard, maybe impossible, to present facts objectively without some form of editorialising. All we have are the testimonies of different people, and these often conflict. In The Arbor, Lorraine Dunbar, Andrea's oldest child, remembers things differently from her sister Lisa, who has more fondness for her late mother.

This is the line Barnard took at the time of the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Documentary (it was later named most original debut feature at the London Film Festival, where Barnard was crowned Best British Newcomer.) "I wanted to maintain a sense of people speaking at one remove," she told reporters. "Hopefully, it will remind the viewer that, however truthful a documentary attempts to be, it is always subject to the editorial decisions of the filmmaker."

Barnard isn't the first filmmaker to play with these ideas. Waltz With Bashir, the 2008 documentary about the 1982 Lebanon War, drew acclaim for its matching of real testimony with animation. And well before that the great German director Werner Herzog was exploring similar terrain. "Through imagination, stylisation and invention, we become much more truthful," he has said, mentioning his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness, which begins with a made-up quote attributed to the philosopher Blaise Pascal.

"To those with the mind of accountants, this looks like a fake", Herzog said, but "it is not intended to deceive or mislead or defraud you. It's exactly the contrary: to fill you with a certain awe and to prepare your soul for something that has never been seen in the history of humankind. So it is not a lie, it is an intensified form of truth."

The Arbor doesn't tamper with facts, it just slices them out of their original context and puts them in the mouths of actors - actors who, as some have commented, are a lot more polished and smooth-skinned than the real people as they appear in grainy archive footage. But it was enough to divide the judges at Tribeca on whether the film is a documentary at all.

On stage, this type of drama is nothing new. "Verbatim theatre" has been a familiar term for years, with actors giving voice to words spoken by subjects during interviews (or in the case of Alan Rickman's My Name Is Rachel Corrie, reciting the subject's diary entries). Anna Deavere Smith, who researched and performed the verbatim play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 about the LA riots, was an early pioneer of the form, and in London the company Recorded Delivery specialise in this type of theatre. The company's actors are wired in to recorded interviews that they hear and replicate as they perform, allowing them to reproduce every cough and stutter.

With these sort of plays there's a more palpable sense of being a fly on the wall in a real-life situation than there is when you're watching theatre that just takes real events as its starting point, such as the recent hit Enron, which uses metaphor, song and dance in order to package the facts in an absorbing way.

The judges of "best documentary" prizes will doubtless be given headaches in the future sorting out what is and isn't eligible for the category. It looks like film audiences will have to get used to the idea that films might be more or less accurate, but they can never present unadulterated reality.