Documentary-like Realism

Fail to Appear
(Canada, 68 min.)
Written and directed by Antoine Bourges
Starring: Deragh Campbell, Nathan Roder

At what point does drama end and documentary begin? Writer/director Antoine Bourges tightrope walks the line between fiction and non-fiction in Fail to Appear, but he isn’t aiming for hybrid hijinks. This intriguing film mines the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking through the lens of neorealism and the result is a unique work of docu-ish-fiction: a film that is, for all purposes, narrative dramatic fiction, but seems as authentic as life itself.

Bourges keeps the camera at a cautious distance from actress Deragh Campbell (Never Eat Alone) as her character Isolde goes about her daily routines as a new caseworker at a Toronto rehabilitation centre. One can hardly tell the difference between “characters” in the dramatic sense and “subjects” in the documentary terms in Fail to Appear as newcomer Campbell joins a cast of unrecognizable actors and non-actors. (Including Toronto film critic Adam Nayman as a public attorney—cue the TFCA a0ward campaign.) People pepper the meeting rooms of the rehab centre and discuss their feelings with Isolde and company, but the film crew could easily be crashing legitimate group sessions. These are natural performances all kept believably mid-range as the film explores the institution of the rehab centre without exploiting it for emotional gains.

The job isn’t what Isolde had planned for in life as she mentions an English degree in polite chitchat with a colleague and uses her love for characters to rationalize her career choice. Working at the centre might not be the most exciting job, either, as Bourges captures the mundane routine of the institution in plainly composed long takes that evoke the observational style of documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman.

Good old Freddy might not like it when writers liken his observational style to “fly on the wall” eyeballs with which the audience sees the characters’ world, but Fail to Appear evokes this same aesthetic with its detached, slightly removed vantage points. It respects the characters’ business without intrusion. Isolde goes about her daily routines undisturbed while she files, makes phone calls, and holds meetings with patients. It’s not the most exciting stuff, cinematically speaking, as Bourges holds on these images of verité-style bureaucracy, yet Fail to Appear immerses viewers in the machinery of everyday institutions.

Isolde seems good at her job despite being a newbie. She listens attentively—Fail to Appear is a film of pensive silence—and uses her words cautiously to guide her clients. Like her cases seeking reform, Isolde searches for the right fit for everything and tests the waters in an exploratory fashion. One sees this thoughtful cautiousness in her sessions with Eric (Nathan Roder), a man seeking rehabilitation for a petty crime. The camera almost forgets its role in the film as Bourges lets the intent of the meeting override its narrative process. It patiently watches as a relationship builds between characters. The trust Isolde establishes with Eric is the foundation for his reform.

A court scene and a fade out later, Fail to Appear observes Eric’s world from another respectful distance. One might guess that the flicker of black between scenes is the point at which fiction ends and non-fiction begins, for these glimpses into Eric’s world play out with even more documentary-like realism than do the snippets of Isolde’s routine. Aesthetically and narratively, Fail to Appear methodically plays with the dramatic energy between art forms. It’s a provocative reflection of film’s ability to mirror life, imitate it, or, in some moments, create it.

Fail to Appear screens at TIFF Lightbox on June 7 and 8 with Bourges in attendance.