8 filmmakers who have made both great fiction films and great documentaries

Making a documentary is not as different from making a fiction film as one might think. Ultimately, whether filming real events or filming actors reading lines, film – as a medium – is generally about telling a story. While documentaries often capture reality, they usually do more than just present it, and filmmakers must make these real events exciting or thought-provoking through narrative.

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It is therefore surprising that there are not more filmmakers who specialize in making both documentaries and “normal” feature films. Since it seems fairly common for most directors to be one or the other, it’s worth highlighting eight directors who have established themselves as good at doing both. While few are split 50-50 between the two formats, the next eight have all made at least one notable documentary and feature film.

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is a German filmmaker who is also famous as a feature filmmaker and documentary filmmaker. For more than five decades, he has made great examples of each, with his most famous feature films including films like Aguirre, the wrath of God and Bad Lieutenant: Stopover in New Orleansand his most critically acclaimed documentaries, including graying man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

He is well known for being eccentric and quirky – as well as for using unusual cinematic techniques – and for exploring the extremes of humanity in his films and documentaries. Herzog’s work always has an unusual yet captivating energy, and as a filmmaker and documentarian he is truly one of a kind and undoubtedly a living legend in the film world.


Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is best known for his detective films, such as Freedmen and The deadas well as his character studies, such as angry bull and Taxi driver. Yet his efforts as a documentary filmmaker are often overlooked, as some of his best work has been in the documentary genre.

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Perhaps the most famous of his documentaries is The last Waltzwhich is a movie about That of the band farewell tour. Scorsese has also made music documentaries about george harrison and Bob Dylan (two, in fact, for the latter), and has also made two four-hour documentaries on the history of cinema – one on Italian cinema (My trip to Italy) and one on American cinema (A personal journey with Martin Scorsese through American films) – both of which are fascinating and essential watches for all movie lovers.

Agnes Varda

Agnes Varda was a French film legend who started directing in 1955 and released her last film in 2019 – 64 years later – the same year she died. With 59 directing credits, it was nearly a movie a year, and she split her time between directing dramas that often had strong feminist themes and documentaries that explored a wide range of unpredictable subject matter.

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French New Wave classics like Cleo from 5 to 7 to charming modern documentaries like Faces Places, Varda’s films have always been fascinating and unmistakably his own. With a strong personal style and a relentlessly unique way of looking at the world and analyzing humanity’s place within it, Agnès Varda remains one of the greatest and best-known filmmakers to master feature filmmaking. and documentaries.

John Ford

John Ford was an American director best known for his westerns and historical dramas, many of which star the western icon John Wayne. Before World War II, he released well-known (and still highly regarded) films like Diligence and Grapes of Wrathwhile in the decades following the war he made films like Researchers and The man who shot Liberty Valance.

During World War II, this is where Ford immersed himself in documentary filmmaking, with a series of films made about the war, during the war. For all intents and purposes, some might be considered propaganda by today’s standards, but historically speaking, it’s interesting that Hollywood brought one of its greatest directors (and a few others) into focus solely on making documentary films for about four years; about as long as America’s involvement in the global conflict has lasted.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay has mostly focused on directing feature films and miniseries during her directing career so far. 2014 Selma was a gripping and critically acclaimed historical drama about Martin Luther King jr.and its miniseries When they see us received a similar level of praise when it was released in 2019.

However, DuVernay’s most acclaimed project to date is perhaps his best-known documentary, 13th, which is a powerful and passionate look at the problems of the prison system in the United States, focusing on the disproportionate number of African American prisoners within it. It’s remarkably well argued and presented, and among the best documentaries of the 2010s, proving that DuVernay is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to feature films and documentaries.

Bo Burnham

Whether Bo Burnham directed documentaries may depend on your definition of the word. Something like his last special, Inside, is a little too outlandish to look like a documentary (and it’s not trying to be one either), but Burnham has done three stand-up specials where he himself wasn’t the stand-up comedian. -up on stage. These could be defined as “documenting” live performances, and one was for Chris Rock in 2018 Tambourinewhile he was the man behind the camera twice for comedian Jerrod Carmichael, once in 2017 and again in 2022.

Then at the other end there is Eigth year (2018), which is a charming coming-of-age comedy-drama about a 13-year-old girl and the struggles that come with being in her early teens. Burnham got some great performances from their young cast, especially Elsie Fisher in the lead role. Hopefully Burnham will continue making feature films as well as directing TV specials, because Eigth year makes for an excellent first feature.

Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes tends to do dramas that are set in the past and are often inspired by real historical figures. His 1998 film, gold velvetis not officially about two of the most iconic musicians of the 1970s, Iggy Pop and david bowie, but definitely draws inspiration from their stories. And then his 2007 film I am not here talks more explicitly about Bob Dylan, but doesn’t tell his life story so much as giving an impression of the different stages of Dylan’s life, as several actors portray him throughout the film.

2021 has given us a direct documentary from Todd Haynes, however, in Velvet Underground’s gripping, enjoyable and quirky documentary simply called The Velvet Underground. It contains some of Haynes’ idiosyncratic style, but conforms more or less to documentary conventions. Still, it’s well-crafted and tells the story of a very interesting band very well, so hopefully Haynes will tackle the documentary genre again very soon.

Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach has a number of very well-made feature films under his belt, and he’s a talented director when it comes to directing grounded, sometimes uncomfortably real human drama. More recently, Marriage story has garnered tremendous praise, and his earlier efforts as The squid and the whale and Frances Ha hold well too.

He’s co-directed only one documentary, and I hope that’s not the last time he does one, because the 2015 documentary in question – titled From Palma – is an excellent watch. He looks back on the career of the iconic American filmmaker Brian DePalma in a fast and entertaining way, and watching it, it’s obvious the filmmakers were passionate about their subject matter. If it’s the only documentary Baumbach touches, it’ll be a shame, but at least it’s at least an excellent one.

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