When the Alien Is Us: Science Fictional Documentaries
Directors Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are well known for their renegotiations of what’s called cinéma vérité—the notion that truth can be found through footage in the absence of a blatantly intervening narrator or narrative. When these documentarians sat down in 2008 with Believer Magazine, Herzog observed that Morris’s recently released Standard Operating Procedure had the feel of a “narrative feature film,” despite exploring real people and documents involved in the military abuses of Abu Ghraib prisoners in 2003. Morris readily agreed. “The intention,” he said, “is to put the audience in some kind of odd reality.” Building on an earlier manifesto by Herzog, he added that his preference was for “ecstatic absurdity” over any attempt at disengaged representations of truth.
In pursuit of this aesthetic, Morris uses cyborgian constructions like the InterroTron, which emerged from a routine of talking to his subjects by putting his “head up right against the lens of the camera.” When he got tired of conducting his interviews in such an uncomfortable position, he began to wonder: “[W]hat if I could become one with the camera. What if the camera and myself could become one and the same?” The result was a teleprompter projecting his face at his subjects, which allowed for what he called a “true first person” experience between his audience and subject, arrestingly direct eye contact and all.
In an age of action-packed, CGI-laden space operas and science fantasies, it’s easy to neglect the power of either speculative film or fiction to do what Herzog and Morris strive for in their documentaries: to estrange us from ourselves; to show us to ourselves in an alien light. Yet that approach has a broad literary heritage, conscious or otherwise.
William Gibson, for instance, holds that science fiction is about the present, never the future, but he also argued in 2011 that “all fiction is speculative, and all history, too—endlessly subject to revision.” It’s an argument that Morris, in his long-form online columns for The New York Times, routinely complicates in the field of photography—a domain, like documentary cinema, where visual representation is often misleadingly taken as definitive proof.
Gibson’s assertion also holds true for speculative fiction from the nineteenth century, an era worth examining in relation to present-day media for two reasons: Literary genres weren’t as stringently divided then as they are today, and film had yet to assert itself as a competitive medium for complex narratives. This was a century in which ghost stories were still widely regarded as potential realities, yet Charles Dickens felt the need to provide in-text citations to defend the presence of spontaneous human combustion in Bleak House (1853). This same sprawling, nuanced period allowed Edgar Allan Poe to mislead mid-century newspaper readers with a plausible (but utterly fictional) account of transatlantic travel, and decades later, permitted H. G. Wells the unsettling, cautionary use of a journalistic tone in his stories.
Such fluidity between truth forms persists today in the documentaries of Morris and Herzog, whose work focuses less on blurring lines between fact and fiction, and more on drawing attention to how blurry cultural notions of fact and fiction have always been. This is the difference between their work and the narrative impulses, say, of Exit through the Gift Shop and Catfish, two 2010 documentaries that rely on our initial suspension of disbelief and a culminating “twist” to make their points about the fragility of truth. In contrast, Morris and Herzog anticipate an audience that already views documentary as contrived to some degree, and build on this expectation by consistently foregrounding the strangeness and fluidity of human experience in their approaches to any theme.
Herzog’s documentaries and blatantly fictionalized films, for instance, reach for what he calls “ecstatic truth,” a notion suggesting that capital-T truth exists in some Platonic form, but that such truth is unattainable through facts alone, and so often demands other modes of engagement to be appreciated, if not entirely understood. In a 2010 article titled “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and the Ecstatic Truth,” Herzog opens with an assertion that neatly summarizes his artistic practice in this regard:
“The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness  are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better.”
Lessons of Darkness, shot in the oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait, is by no means the only film in which Herzog practices factual interference for poetic effect, but it has the added significance of disrupting major cultural narratives about Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Aside from Herzog’s ecological arguments, which suffuse a great many of his documentary-style films, this is a rare act of politicization, and the confounded anger underlying the film’s aesthetics manifests again in his explanation:
“After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media—and here I mean television in particular—was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled ’science fiction,’ as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.”
The stylized way that Herzog conveys his horror should not be read, however, as in any way immobilizing him as a documentarian. Rather than giving over to the impossibility of representing vital truths through anything but poetic or otherwise alienating film aesthetics, both he and Morris have also explored issues for which social solutions should be (and often are) readily available. The American practice of capital punishment, for instance, features in Herzog’s 2011 Into the Abyss, while Morris’s 1988 The Thin Blue Line is an iconic treatment of the same topic. Indeed, the latter proved to be an example of what mid-20th century Quakers call “speaking truth to power,” since Morris’s reenactments of a police officer’s murder served to highlight how circumstantial evidence and a prejudicial desire to deliver the death penalty sent Randall Adams (instead of the likelier culprit, a sixteen-year-old named David Harris) to death row. Adams’ conviction would be overturned the year after Morris’s documentary was released.
There is little conflict between these filmic approaches, either—only an appreciation of narrative limits, which are more apparent and constricting around some topics than others. As Herzog observes in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, while sitting with an archaeologist who has digitally mapped the Chauvet cave system that holds 32,000-year-old cave paintings: “It is like you are creating the phone directory of Manhattan--four million entries, but, ah, do they dream? Do they cry at night? What are their hopes? What are their families? You’ll never know from the phone directory.”
Soon after, we cut to a slice of the crew’s time inside Chauvet, where the guide calls for a moment of silence: “We are going to listen to the silence of the caves,” he says, “and perhaps, we can hear our own heartbeats.” Herzog complies in the moment, but post-production, for we poor viewers who were not physically present, a visual scan of the cave walls is matched by the rise of audio accompaniment—a heartbeat, as promised, and the ethereal music of Ernst Reijseger, with parts for organ, piano, flute, cello, and choir. In this way, we who may never walk those restricted passageways are granted one artist’s rendition of what it might be like to stand within that natural cathedral.
There is nothing particularly new about this maneuver, either—the narrative that allows its audience to experience in the immediate moment what it might never otherwise live to see. On Saturday, April 15, 1844, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Balloon” was published in the New York Sun—the article a grand old tale of “Mr. Monck Mason’s Flying Machine,” which crossed the Atlantic in a staggering three days, bringing eight passengers to Sullivan’s Island aboard the “Steering Balloon, Victoria.” A mere two days later, the article was retracted for the pesky, piddling fact that not a word of it was true: not the extensive descriptions of the vessel or its underlying technology, not the stories of its industrious inventors, and certainly not the precise and exhaustive details of the flying machine during its most momentous operations. The truth was of little consequence, though, to Poe; in an amendment added to future publications of the work (as “The Balloon-Hoax”) he writes, “and, in fact, if (as some assert) the Victoria did not absolutely accomplish the voyage recorded, it will be difficult to assign a reason why she should not have accomplished it.”
Sure enough, in 1978 the Double Eagle II, an unpowered balloon carrying human passengers, would cross the Atlantic in a comparatively sluggish six days—and of course, long before that feat, a great many other modes of aerial transport would take to the skies in every bit as extraordinary a manner as Poe’s newspaper account promised his mid-nineteenth-century readers. What greater purpose can a speculative story serve, but to bring to life those tantalizingly close futures its generation would otherwise only get to imagine?
There is, of course, also a dark side to the use of non-fictional authority to extrapolate worlds to come, as other nineteenth-century fiction amply warns us. In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), H. G. Wells uses what’s called a “frame narrative” to introduce his cautionary tale of ego-driven vivisection, and that frame serves to enhance the truth claims of the story as a whole. Instead of a simple travel diary—a narrative form that already emulates common non-fiction practice—we first get a note from the protagonist’s nephew, who describes the circumstances in which the subsequent account was found, and in precise terms offers some sense of what could or could not be verified about the story’s particulars. Why adopt a journalistic tone, though, before a story that already uses an autobiographical register? The novella’s subtitle, “a Possibility,” offers one answer: This story of human monstrosity is emphatically intended as an extension of scientific practice in Wells’s day and age—just a step or two from what is, and toward the realm of what Dickens would easily have termed “the shadows of things that May be.”
Herzog’s The White Diamond (2004) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007) are mired with shadows, too. In the former, an inventor embarks on a risky balloon trip over Guyana’s rainforest canopy after an earlier attempt took his friend’s life; in the latter, Herzog witnesses the common occurrence of disoriented or “mad” penguins striking out in the wrong direction—headed for a horizon they will die long before reaching. The brutality of nature is a prevailing theme for Herzog, whose cinematic travels have taken him through many landscapes filled with suffering. In 1982’s Burden of Dreams, he describes his immediate environment as “vile and base. . . . It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger. . . . But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”
In their interview with Believer Magazine, Morris picks up that thread of irresistible monstrosity when he exalts the role of spontaneity and planning in equal measure, holding that both exist in documentary and feature filmmaking. “Despite all our efforts to control something,” he concludes, “the world is much, much more powerful than us, and more deranged even than us.” Neither Morris nor Herzog, then—for all that their distinct directorial styles brand their films—holds himself as master of the worlds he attempts to capture. But they can champion that madness all the same—the attainable and the elusive truths alike; the alien that exists both within and immediately around us—and they do.
Recently, Herzog lent his distinctive voice to a production by director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo)—a short film titled “Plastic Bag,” in which Herzog inscribes familiar human yearnings upon one difficult-to-love piece of commercial waste. This, too, is a kind of documentary: the life cycle of a plastic bag on its way to the Pacific (Trash) Vortex, a sprawling oceanic testament to some of our worst environmental practices. We have given life to toxic landscapes like these all over the globe, and there are undoubtedly other, even bleaker stories for each. The tacit threat of this film, then, is that when we are gone, these excesses alone—the worst of us—will speak for our kind. Dare we ask what they’d say?
Thankfully, the science-fictional aesthetic runs both ways in Herzog’s and Morris’s documentaries, just as it did for genre-defying speculative fiction in the nineteenth century. At that strangely familiar border between our realities and our dreams dwell both warnings and wonders: enough creative material, in the right hands, for some semblance, too, of hope.
M. L. Clark, Canadian by birth, is based in Medellín, Colombia. Along with stories in Clarkesworld, Clark is the published author of speculative and science fiction in magazines including Analog, F&SF, and Lightspeed, and the occasional year’s best anthology. Clark also writes global humanist articles twice-weekly at OnlySky.