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Fiction vs. Non-Fiction: How Both Genres Allow Filmmakers to Arrive at Essential Truths

There are certain truths that can only be told through documentaries and non-fiction formats. On the other hand, movies and fictional dramas can be highly effective vessels for unpacking difficult realities.

For instance, any student of either film or journalism is familiar with the Rashomon effect. Named after Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, the effect refers to how a single event can be interpreted by different people in different ways. In Rashomon, four different people tell their own accounts of a single murder – resulting in four different ‘truths.’ This illustrates the impact that people’s individual biases and experiences can have on their objective observations and memory of events.

Similar insights can be gleaned from the 1987 documentary Thanks Girls and Goodbye by Sue Maslin and Sue Hardistry. In a nutshell, the documentary chronicles the real experiences of the Australian Women’s Land Army, a group of women who worked on farms during the Second World War. Thanks Girls and Goodbye is an impressive feat of research to say the least. It combines Land Army songs, archival newsreels, home movies, photographs, and the verbal accounts of Land Army veterans. In order to tell a balanced tale, the documentary makes heavy use of newsreel title sequences, handwritten signatures from interviewees, and other tools.

According to Maslin who produced the documentary, it was necessary in order to separate the official wartime propaganda from the home movies and stories told from the perspective of the Land Army women. That being said, many of these individual stories often clashed with collective retellings of previous experiences. The result is an archival film document that considers the different ‘truths’ from the accounts, myths, and evidences of a forgotten era. In many ways, Thanks Girls and Goodbye is an examination of the Rashomon effect in the collective storytelling of Australian media from the 1940s to the ‘80s.

“If myth is an overriding story arc that makes sense of the many realities, then in the very act of making the film, we have constructed yet another myth,” explains Maslin. “It is arguably a more enduring myth because it has been archived on celluloid; wider reaching because it has been broadcast on television and continues to circulate to educational institutions around Australia; and possibly more authoritative given the sheer volume of research that the project is based upon.”

While the producer is referring to her own documentary, her statements can just as easily refer to fictional works as well. Both fiction and non-fiction storytelling can pave different but straightforward paths towards unveiling uncommon truths. Today, there are many documentaries that employ the same storytelling methods as Thanks Girls and Goodbye. By combining the traditional documentary format with creative storytelling, contemporary documentaries are finding ways to compete with fiction in the age of series-binging. This can be observed in Paper Trails, which creatively chronicles the life and works of broadcaster, activist, and mental health advocate Anne Deveson.

Likewise, fictional dramas continue to be a vessel for unearthing insights that reveal deep truths about the human psyche. Online comedy drama Other People’s Problems illustrates this perfectly. The series examines the life of Florence, a ghost writer who composes other people’s letters and takes secondhand clothes as payment. In a comedic format, the series asks whether Florence is truly helping people or using other people’s problems to escape her own.

Examining the potential of both fiction and non-fiction in tackling difficult truths is a must for any contemporary filmmaker. In this digital era, the competition for audience attention is fierce. At the same time, the professional tools needed for both fiction and non-fiction video storytelling are more accessible than ever before. Gone are the days when filmmakers and documentarians needed the green light from a big sponsor, studio, or network to start production.

Nowadays, anyone with a couple hundred dollars can start producing films. Popular among podcasters, the Panasonic HC-V770 camcorder gives budget-challenged filmmakers an affordable way to shoot full HD videos. Likewise, the Audio-Technica AT897 mic is an affordable introduction to professional audio capturing in film. On top of easily available hardware, there are now countless cheap and free video editing software available online.

As filming technology keeps getting cheaper and more accessible, Australia’s film and documentary industry will continue to produce new content. And if the aforementioned projects are any indication, we can look forward to more insightful narratives that explore the true nature of humanity – whether in fiction or in non-fiction.

Penned specially for by Jean Brinnlee.