When is a doc a doc, and when is it not? If a film portrays real people in real situations without a script, then it’s a doc, right? But what if the film is about a fictional character interacting with real people in a real situation? These questions have been knocked around for a while now, and reached a fever pitch when actor Sacha Baron Cohen took on the role of Borat to made a quasi-documentary about interacting with real people in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in 2006. (The blurred lines resulted in a series of lawsuits against Cohen and distributor Fox by some of the “real” people in the film who said they were misled or misrepresented. As far as I know, none of the suits held up in court.)

Sacha Baron Cohen as BrunoThe questions are rising again, with Cohen’s latest film, Bruno, slated for July. The trailer for Bruno (not safe for work, incidentally) was recently released, and it features text stating that the film includes “real people” and “real situations.” It’s funny that the makers of the trailer felt the need to tell the audience that what they see was “real” — to me, this message almost serves to counteract that idea. It’s sort of like how the word “natural,” when applied to a loaf of bread, means absolutely nothing these days.

Bringing “real people” and a “fictional character” together in one film can remind us that life that can’t be categorized in neat, orderly boxes. When is a doc a doc? Or perhaps the better question is: When is a nonfiction film a nonfiction film? I think it’s like that quote about pornography: I know it when I see it. I have no problem saying that Errol Morris, despite all his recreations and paying subjects and whatnot, is a nonfiction filmmaker.

And I’d say the same goes for Baron Cohen, albeit on a lower-brow level. What makes it harder to call his films nonfiction, or documentaries, is the fact that they are so clearly intended to entertain, rather than enlighten — which is the more commonly-accepted purpose of the documentary.

So, then, where do the latest rumors about actor Casey Affleck‘s documentary fit into all this? Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent antics of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who claimed that he’s quitting acting and starting up a career as a rapper. Phoenix made a fool of himself falling off a stage, and showed up catatonic on the David Letterman show. Affleck, who is Phoenix’s brother-in-law, has been trailing him throughout all this with a camera. Are they making a documentary about celebrity? About Phoenix’s worldview? Or are they just punking the media and those who soak it all in, all for the sake of a nonfiction film? That would then make us the unwitting “real” participants in their script.

I don’t know, but it sounds like that could be both entertaining and enlightening.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen