Why Top Docu Directors Felt the Need to Appear in Their Own Films

For different reasons, three nonfiction helmers put themselves in the middle of their own work

The Act of Killing Changing Reality

Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 “Nanook of the North” set the standard for documentaries: An impartial filmmaker points his camera at a subject to give audiences a glimpse into a different world. It eventually emerged that Flaherty staged had some scenes, and the blurred lines between neutrality and dramatic license have been confusing audiences ever since.

This year, several documakers are taking things a step further. In three very different ways, Alex Gibney with “The Armstrong Lie,” Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”) and Sarah Polley (“Stories We Tell”) have made films that question the role of documentarians and the objectivity of their works.

The directors of both “Armstrong” and “Killing” set out to make uplifting films, but circumstances gave them very different results. Polley’s film (from Roadside) starts out as a traditional docu, in which she interviews relatives and acquaintances about family lore. It’s like a Canadian version of “Rashomon,” with people reinforcing or contradicting each other’s memories. But in the final half-hour, she allows friends and relatives to question her motives, her methods of storytelling and even her right to make the film. One relative asks her, “Who owns the truth?”

Polley tells Variety, “Many of my favorite moments were ones that were not necessarily intended to be part of the film. Because the film is about storytelling, I thought it was important to include a glimpse of what it means to people to tell their story. How intimidating it can be, how thrilling, how full of dread and possibility the process is.” She adds, “I was not an objective interviewer, as I was a family member. I wanted to be honest about my own subjective role early in the film.”

After seeing the film, everyone was supportive, she says, and still trying to discover the truth about the past. “It’s funny how the telling of a story can both illuminate and obscure memory.”

Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are two examples of documakers who become lead characters in their own films. Gibney (who also directed “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” this year) isn’t like that, but he ended up playing a prominent role in “The Armstrong Lie.”

In 2009, he set out to make a film about Lance Armstrong’s triumph over cancer and his return to the Tour de France after seven consecutive wins followed by three years of retirement. The film was virtually finished when the athlete admitted to doping.

Sony Pictures Classics funded Gibney’s return to the topic, asking the athlete about his lies in the earlier docu. So the first documentary became a sort of character in the second film, with footage and commentary about the extent of Armstrong’s 2009 deception. And so “Armstrong Lie,” which includes interviews as recent as May 2013, becomes an exploration of truth — even about what is presented onscreen as truth.

As for his participation in the docu and his use of the 2009 footage, Gibney says it was unusual but necessary. “I thought it was more honest to look at the way I’d been part of the machine and how I’d been complicit. (In the earlier documentary), I had put myself in the role of the fan; that’s how these lies can exist: We want athletes to succeed, we live vicariously through them, we want to root for them.” He concludes, “There are layers upon layer upon layer of reality. Once you start peeling the onion, it really gets elaborate.”

Oppenheimer’s docu, “Killing,” distributed by Drafthouse Films, takes that layering to a surreal level as it addresses the aftermath of Indonesia’s 1965 military overthrow of the government. Estimates say that between 500,000 and 2.5 million people were killed, accused of being communists. The documaker began researching the project in 2003, and shot the first footage two years later, aiming to interview survivors, who are still frightened. He discovered why: The killers are still in positions of power. Instead, the film focuses on Anwar Congo and Herman Koto and their colleagues, self-described gangsters.

“It was jaw-dropping,” says Oppenheimer. “The perpetrators were boastful, offering to show me how they killed, and they would launch into spontaneous demonstrations. After maybe the 10th perpetrator demonstrated what happened, I proposed, ‘I will film your demonstrations and you can tell us how you see yourselves.’ It wasn’t a trick to open them up, it was a response to their openness. They were doing this for the film.”

In one scene, Congo revisits the site of multiple killings and begins dancing to show off his smooth moves. “Dancing on that roof, it’s grotesque,” Oppenheimer says. “And then he proposes even more grotesque things.” Congo’s suggestions include re-creating killings in the style of a gangster movie, then as a Western and eventually a musical.

Congo, Koto and their cohorts sometimes ask the unseen Oppenheimer questions as they prepare re-enactments of individual murders and, in one case, the leveling of an entire village, with locals performing as victims. The killers talk about having been inspired by Hollywood: “We watched so many violent movies,” says one, adding that they learned it’s more effective to strangle people with wire instead of rope, because it’s harder for the victim to grab onto. The two are very aware of the effect of filming and onscreen depictions: “It’s about image,” frets one. In other words, there are several levels of reality here, all of them significantly warped.

Modern audiences have expanded their definition of “reality,” thanks to social media, YouTube and unscripted TV programming, ranging from talent contests to talkshows to “structured reality,” which puts non-actors in contrived situations. On the bigscreen, there are more than a dozen reality-based films in awards contention this year, with plenty more scheduled for 2014. And there are feature versions based on docus, including “Devil’s Knot” and a planned version of the Weinstein Co.’s 2013 “Salinger.”

Why are we so obsessed with defining “reality?”

Says Polley, “I think it’s a survival mechanism to learn how to turn the chaos of life into some kind of cohesive narrative.”

Offers Oppenheimer: “I’ve always believed whenever you film anybody, you create reality with that person. You’re almost never filming ‘reality,’ you’re always creating it with the people you film. Documentaries are inherently collaborative.

Adds Gibney: “We’re such a media culture; images are everywhere. Lance Armstrong thrives in that culture. We’re interested in reality, but also interested in heightened reality. It’s a sort of reality with performance-enhancing drugs!”