What's up doc?

Man on Wire

Borrowing from a classic heist movie, Man on Wire is the latest documentary to take its cue from the art of the feature film. Miles Fielder looks on as the line blurs between fact and fiction

It's supposed to be a documentary about a daredevil balancing act between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974 by high-wire walker Philippe Petit. Yet, British filmmaker James Marsh says Man on Wire was directly inspired by Rififi, Jules Dassin's classic 1955 French film noir about a jewellery store heist. 'I had always seen the film as a heist movie,' Marsh says. 'And we discovered there was an amazing group of supporting characters involved in the plot. The testimony of Philippe's accomplices allowed us to create multiple perspectives on the execution of this criminal enterprise with its many setbacks and conflicts.'

Marsh, who began his career making leftfield music documentaries before garnering international attention for the BAFTA-winning docu-drama Wisconsin Death Trip, has assembled the testimony of Man on Wire's interviewees/supporting cast in the style of a crime caper. The film opens with Petit and his accomplices (who go by various nom-de-plumes such as 'The Australian'), recounting how they planned to break into both towers simultaneously in order to pull off the artistic crime of the century. It then flashes back to fill in the back story – explaining Petit's passion for death-defying stunts and showing him in action traversing the Sydney Harbour Bridge – before returning to the WTC caper to show exactly how the feat was pulled off. In terms of style and structure, Man on Wire does indeed owe a far greater debt to heist movies such as Rififi than it does to traditional documentaries.

Marsh's film is a fine example of how documentaries are increasingly being made in the style of features and are treated by the industry accordingly. Where these films would previously have been broadcast on television, they're now receiving cinema releases, not just in arthouse venues, but in multiplexes.

In keeping with this trend, Icon Films Distribution isn't marketing and releasing Man on Wire as a documentary. 'Since the film plays like a heist, this is the primary focus of the marketing campaign,' says Icon FD president Hugo Grumbar. 'We have a big cinematic trailer and poster, and our tag line is: "The Artistic Crime of the Century."'

So far this year, 22 documentaries have made it into UK cinemas, among them Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock's terrorist hunt Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, and legendary documentarian Errol Morris' investigation of the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Standard Operating Procedure. It's unsurprising, then, that this June's Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) – which launched itself as a documentary festival back in 1947 and which boasts a strong doc strand in its programme – premiered a number of highly cinematic documentaries (Man on Wire among them). The EIFF's documentary programmer, Jenny Leask, singles out three more examples: 'The Werner Herzog film, Encounters at the End of the World, has lots of amazing undersea shots that look like sci-fi,' she says. 'Alone in Four Walls, which is about a Russian school for young offenders, looked amazing with lots of tracking shots and really beautiful composition. And sleep furiously, which is about a rural community in Wales, was slow and atmospheric.'

Cinematic documentaries, however, are not exactly a new phenomenon. Throughout the 1980s in America, Morris was pioneering documentaries (such as his gripping death row doc The Thin Blue Line), the subject, style and structure of which were reminiscent of features, while over in the UK Nick Broomfield began inserting himself into his documentaries (starting with 1988's Driving Me Crazy) as a catalyst for the action he caught on camera, making himself a protagonist or character. Other documentary makers followed suit, most notably Michael Moore with 2002's Bowling for Columbine and Spurlock with 2004's Super Size Me, both of which became global box office smashes. But it was Glaswegian director Kevin Macdonald who took documentary filmmaking to a new level with his 1999 film about the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, One Day in September. Macdonald set out to make a political thriller as riveting as any fictional treatment of the story, and while he came under fire from some documentary purists for doing so, he won an Oscar for his efforts.

It's possible to trace cinematic documentaries further back in film history (to Peter Watkins' 1964 docu-drama about the Jacobite uprising Culloden, for example), although cinematically-styled documentaries made for and released in cinemas have become increasingly common since the turn of the millennium. The increase in the theatrical distribution of documentaries is largely down to the phenomenal commercial success of Moore and Spurlock's films, but also to docs as varied as former US presidential candidate Al Gore's global warming lecture An Inconvenient Truth and the French nature film The March of the Penguins. Coming to a cinema near you before the year is out are: Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, a portrait of the ex-president, Steep, a mountain climbing adventure, and Of Time and City, Terence Davies' bittersweet love letter to his hometown Liverpool.

Audiences are responding to these films because they can now be seen in cinemas and because they make for very good viewing (it's no coincidence that Man on Wire won the audience award at the EIFF last month). But aside from their aesthetic qualities, these documentaries are telling stories that features are failing to engage with. Where, for example, fictional treatments of the war in Iraq have skirted around the subject or been overly introspective (think of the US-set AWOL soldier dramas In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss), breathtakingly urgent documentaries such as Standard Operating Procedure, Taxi to the Darkside and Iraq in Fragments have gone right to the black heart of the bad war. They may not make for easy viewing, but they're telling stories in ways that can't be found elsewhere in cinemas, or on the small screen in our homes.

What's really driving this new surge of cinematic documentaries is filmmakers' efforts to find new ways to tell new stories. Speaking in 2006 about his fiction debut, The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald said, 'I like messing with people's heads a bit, so that they don't quite know what parts are true and what parts aren't. I want people to come out and say, "I wonder what parts of the film were true?" and then go off and do some reading around the subject.'

Long gone, then, is the time when documentaries were dry, factual accounts of people, places and events. Fact continues to prove stranger than fiction, but documentaries are now also frequently funnier and more exciting, formally innovative, emotionally affecting and provocative than features. As a result, just as documentary makers have freely appropriated techniques from features, so too have feature filmmakers pilfered from documentaries (see the recent doc-style Manhattan monster movie Cloverfield, POV Spanish horror film [REC], Paul Greengrass' United 93, and, come to that, Greengrass' Jason Bourne thrillers). In fact, filmmakers are crossing between genres to make fictional and factual films. Broomfield's last two, Ghosts and Battle for Haditha, were features made in a documentary style. Meanwhile, Davies' return to cinema for the first time since his 2000 Edith Wharton period drama The House of Mirth is his previously mentioned Liverpool documentary, while the Jimmy Carter doc has been directed by Jonathan Silence of the Lambs Demme.

All of this suggests filmmakers no longer recognise formal boundaries between factual and fictional films. And the business side of the industry is following suit. On the evidence of Man on Wire, that blurring of these genres can only be good for the cinema-going public.

Man on Wire is out now on general release.

Man on Wire

  • 4 stars
  • 2008
  • UK
  • 1h 34min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: James Marsh

On the 6 August 1974, French artist, performer and hire wire walker, Phillipe Petit committed the biggest victimless art crime of the century. The story of that daring caper, the practice events that led up to it (Notre Dame Cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge) and the genesis of this the maddest of living performance…