Hive Mind

Documentary Consciousness in Films

Steve Anderson sent a query to the Visible Evidence listserv on 3/21/2022 about “documentary moments” or what Vivian Sobchack described as the intrusion of “documentary consciousness” into a fictional or docu-fictional diegesis. At the time of the query, he was focusing on the practice of including real people–or photos/video of real people–usually at the end (often during the credits) of a docudrama or biopic, e.g., the use of side-by-side photographs of actors and the historical figures they portray, or video clips showing real historical events/people depicted in the film. This list compiles the results of his query.


The death of the rabbit in Rules of the Game (1939), Dir. Jean Renoir.

The substitution of the real Edward Snowden for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the final scene of Snowden (2016), Dir. Oliver Stone.

The casting of the real Larry Flynt as the judge in the trial scenes of The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Dir. Milos Forman.

REDS (1981), Dir. Warren Beaty.

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Dir. Phillip Noyce ends with photos of the real women whose story is depicted in the fictionalized film.

Waltz with Bashir (2008), Dir. Ari Folman ends with live action images of the massacre, the soldiers in the animated documentary have blocked out.

Erin Brockovich has a cameo in the Julia Roberts’ film Erin Brockovich (2000), Dir Steven Soderbergh.

The clip of the little boy in Germany, Pale Mother (1980), Dir. Helma Sanders-Brahms.

Silvia Prieto (1999), Dir. Martín Rejtman – it’s a comedy about a woman named Silvia Prieto who suddenly realizes other women have the same name. She finds a few Silvias Prieto in the Buenos Aires phone book and gets in touch. She becomes friends with one of them, and they come up with the plan of creating a “club de Silvias Prieto”… these two are actresses, but the film ends with a meeting of the club, with five or six real Silvias Prieto introducing themselves to the camera.

Schindler’s List (1993) Dir. Steven Spielberg.

Medium Cool (1969), Dir. Haskell Wexler.

“Deep faked” voice of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner (2021), Dir. Morgan Neville.

Welcome to Chechnya (2020), Dir. David France used deep fakes very wisely.

CODA (2021), Dir. Sian Heder at the end shows stills of the family members on which the fictional story is built.

MALCOLM X (1992), Dir. Spike Lee, includes footage of the police beating of Rodney King.

TV series Designated survivor (2016), Dir. David Guggenheim in the last season used ‘unedited’ video testimonies by US citizens.

There are anecdotes about how directors are getting their actors more ‘involved’ – Herzog in Fitzcarraldo (1982), Dir. Werner Herzog having a ship actually transported over the mountain.

Vincent Gallo having sex with Chloe Sevigny in The Brown Bunny (2003), Dir. Vincent Gallo.

Derek Cianfrance directing The Blue Valentine (2011), Dir. Derek Cianfrance over the course of ten years.

Sanders of the River (1935), Dir. Zoltan Korda is one such example where the great Korda first had some good recordings from Nigeria and only afterwards shot the film.

HBO did a movie about American Family called Cinema Verite (2011), Dirs. Shari Springer Bergman, Robert Pulcini. It had James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert and Tim Robbins as the cheating husband. They also intersplice bits from the actual 1973 show.

Persona (1967), Dir. Ingmar Bergman included holocaust photos and footage of Buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam War through immolation.

All the President’s Men (1976) Dir. Alan J. Pakula) used television footage of the Nixon presidency brilliantly.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Dir. Sidney Lumet opens with a wonderful documentary montage of New York in which a few of the characters are subtly placed.

Soylent Green (1973), Dir. Richard Fleischer opens with a similar montage documenting environmental degradation.

Bonnie and Clyde, (1967), Dir. Arthur Penn opens with a slideshow of depression era photographs into which photos of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are inserted.

The Deer Hunter (1979), Dir. Michael Cimino uses documentary footage of the fall of Saigon.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Dir. Milos Forman, was shot in a real psychiatric hospital, cast the real head psychiatrist in the same role in the film, and included real patients in the shoots.

Steve Jobs, Jobs (2013), Dir. Joshua Michael Stern, has the classic real people photo comparison in the credits.

Gerima and his crew being stopped by the LAPD in the opening of Bush Mama (1975), Dir. Haile Gerima.

Spike Lee also inserts footage of the Charlottesville, VA “Unite the Right” rally at the end of BlaKKKlansman (2018), Dir. Spike Lee.

Green Berets (1968), Dirs. John Wayne, Ray Kellogg, Mervyn LeRoy.

Battle of the Bulge (1965), Dir. Ken Annakin.

“Real” footage of WWII in It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Dir. Frank Capra—planes crashing into the sea during the montage of Harry’s heroics, one townsperson superimposed over footage of war in Europe.

Dr. Strangelove (1964), Stanley Kubrick with all the a-bomb explosions, which I assume were newsreel, etc.

Forrest Gump (1994), Dir Robert Zemeckis He’s inserted into famous historical photos.

Zelig (1983), Dir. Woody Allen.

The Dupes (1972), Dir. Tewfik Saleh.

They Do Not Exist (1973), Dir. Mustafa Abu Ali.

Canticle of the Stones (1990), Dir. Michel Khleifi.

Salt of This Sea (2010), Dir. Annemarie Jacir.

Recollection (2015), Dir. Kamal Aljafari is a “fiction” film constructed entirely of footage from Israeli and American films in which the actors are digitally removed and the ”story” told about the Palestinian landscape and people (documentary evidence accidentally captured on fiction film shot in Jaffa) who appear as mistakes in the background of the footage.

Hart Perry and Barbara Kopple attacked while filming Harlan County, USA, (1976), Dir. Barbara Kopple.

The cameraperson in The Children Were Watching (1961), Dirs. Robert Drew and Richard Leacock.

Game of Death (1978), Dirs. Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse that Bruce Lee exploitation film cobbled together with body doubles, pre-death recycled film footage, and the few scenes he made for this film before he died in 1973. The film utilizes actual documentary footage from his Hong Kong funeral as part of this fictional Bruce Lee’s “faked” death.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Dir. Milos Forman has a bunch of random news footage from the 1960s/70s.

In Loving  (2016), Dir. Jeff Nichols there’s the scene where the Life photographer visits with and photographs Richard and Mildred Loving in their house, and at the very end of the film, they show the original photograph that the film restages. Probably 40+ minutes apart (the restaged photo and the original).

The recent biopic King Richard (2021), Dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green with Will Smith ends with real-life footage of Richard Williams.

stills of the African American women ‘computers’ /mathematicians who worked on the NASA space programme over the end titles in Hidden Figures (2016), Dir. Weston Woods.

Small Axe Anthology “Mangrove” (2020) Dir. Steve McQueen.

“Red White and Blue” Small Axe Anthology (2020) also ended with photos of those involved.

The Queen (2006), Dir. Stephen Frears’ uncanny use of documentary footage in in relation to audience reception. In particular his insertion of footage filmed from Kensington Palace on the day of Princess Diana’s demise. For someone like me, who was actually there on that day, it brought me the most intense moment of immersion I have ever experienced in a cinema.

Tove (2020), Dir. Zaida Bergroth, features a home movie sequence right at the end of s biopic about Tove Jansson (mother of Mumin) which shows Tove jazzing down the cliffs of a rather uninviting island in the Finnish archipelago to one of Benny Goodman’s pieces. Those few minutes of documentary footage gave the clue to Alma Pöysti’s entire performance of ”Tove” in the film.

Tell Me Lies (1968), Dir. Peter Brook.

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A key film of the time, it has both several real persons playing themselves, including the guide at the Hemingway house and a round table that includes the author of the novella on which the film is based, not to mention Alea himself (although unnamed) in the viewing theater sequence. Also the incorporation of documentary footage throughout. It is the richest but not the only example in either Cuban or Latin American cinema.

A Trick of Light (1995), Dir. Wim Wenders.

The HBO film Confirmation (2016, Dir. Rick Famuyiwa starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill features many Forrest Gump-esque moments where Washington replaces Hill in documentary footage.

The use of a speech by Fidel Castro at the beginning of the remake Scarface (1983), Dir. Brian De Palma to situate that film’s events in the wake of the Mariel boatlift of 1980. My intuition is that many films dealing with the 60s and 70s use this trope.

JFK (1991) is certainly another as are films about Vietnam, the counterculture, New Left, etc.

Judas and the Last Messiah (2021), Dir. Shaka King features documentary footage of both Fred Hampton and the informer who turned on him, William O’Neal, at the end.

I’m thinking of the near slavish quoting, yet queering, of Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (2009) in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007).

The direct quotation of police records in the intro of Madame Sata (2002), Dir. Karim Ainouz, again, only to underminingly queer the “document” in the decidedly contradictory and celebratory depiction of the lead character.

Or you have the bizarre yet intriguing tradition of verbatim theatre/film with the resulting lip-synched audio in The Arbor (2010), Dir. Clio Bernard, an intriguing embodied disjuncture that can lead us directly to drag and other lip synched performances (e.g. karaoke). We might also have to broaden the consideration to the anchoring aspect of ‘documentary audio’ in animated documentary.

The NYC Saint Patrick’s Day parade in God Told Me To (1976), Dir. Larry Cohen.

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