A Docfiction Paradox

Two modes of docfiction spectatorship.

Houston, We Have a Problem!
Žiga Virc, 2016
Genre: Hybrid/docfiction

I’ve never been sure how influential Dirk Eitzen’s essay “Documentary as a Mode of Reception” [pdf] has been in documentary studies. Certainly, it’s read and cited, but I’ve never had the sense that it’s been agenda-setting or generative of too much other documentary studies work. Maybe because its argument is overstated (I think) or because its case is self-contained or because it doesn’t provide a research agenda for other scholars.

But I keep thinking about Eitzen’s argument – that documentary is merely a label of nonfiction rather than any intrinsic form or content of non-fiction-ness – when confront the recent wave of doc-fiction films, like Exit through the Gift Shop or Stories We Tell.

Houston, We Have a Problem! is a good example. It’s somewhere between Exit and Stories in its pitch – presented in the context of documentary festivals and distribution yet giving a wink to its docfiction nature (without fully acknowledging it as in Stories We Tell). Houston presents an account of Yugoslavia’s selling of their space program to the United States during the Cold War and space race. There are tidbits of historical truth in it, but in whole it weaves a fabricated conspiracy type narrative.

I tend not to warm up to hoax films myself, maybe because I’m a fairly gullible viewer. There are some textual clues for Houston’s fabrication. First, Slavoj Žižek serves as an epigram and postscript to the “documentary” as well as expert testimony in the middle; his poststructuralist quips about the lie being truer than the truth can be read as allegory-of-the-cave ideological commentary on the Cold War but gradually clearly refer to the fabulist dimension of the doc-fiction itself.

Second, as in Stories We Tell, the editing is too on-the-nose. No matter how good a simulacrum of documentary a doc-fiction can be, its archive is usually too complete. And the transition from black-and-white “archival” to color present footage is too neat.

So we can imagine two (or maybe three) spectators here: 1) the gullible ones who never realize this is not a documentary. They may sense something’s off or think the documentary is fabricated, but they are not in on the joke. 2) the ones in on the joke. They may know it’s a doc-fiction film going into it or figure it out soon into the film. Either way, their spectatorship is geared toward a meta documentary-critique rather than the Cold War content of the film. To this we might add a third who maybe starts as 1 and only gradually arrives at 2.

I see this split as a paradox for docfiction because for the meta-critical spectatorship (#2) to work, the film will ideally need to sucker the gullible spectator (#1), at least nominally. Yet if every spectator were taken in, the broader documentary critique (#2) wouldn’t work. This explains the cagy marketing and labeling of the film. There’s some suggestion of myth and fable, but the filmmakers resist disavowing the documentary label altogether and festivals do not always highlight this as docfiction (though Neftlix does).  The Allegory of the Cave requires people to be both in the cave and outside it.