Ava Duvernay’s Origin has been criticised for not being a documentary, but it works best as a docudrama. Here’s why.
We are often told that films are an escape from our real lives. We love watching two hours of pictures lighting up a screen at 24 frames a second, and seeing actors become synonymous with characters that then become immortal in the annals of film history. The chance to remove ourselves from the context of whatever trauma or misery we feel life has attached to our weighty shoulders is one many can’t resist. When we want to experience real events through a film medium, we will watch a documentary on the topic at hand to get a firm understanding on the basis that what is being presented is factual and accurate.
Then there are those films that fictionalise fact in an autobiographical narrative that embellishes truth for entertainment purposes. These films get stuck in the minute fractions of genre between documentary and fiction, and audiences never know where the line between fact and fiction is, so they ultimately dismiss them. When you then bring in something as vital to discuss as race relations, there are factions of the world that will both ardently defend and attack the concept of racism regardless of logic or fact.
Breaking Docudrama Bindings
There’s a certain accidental triviality in narrative films that attempt this discussion of race, a topic not often voiced eagerly. This isn’t usually the films’ fault, with blame resting on the audience’s shoulders. The likes of George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave tell the impactful stories that society needs to take heed of. If we take the latter, in the ten years since 12 Years A Slave’s release, what societal change – for better or worse – has that film enacted? Because during narrative feature films that tackle race – or most fiction-presenting features – audiences can find themselves disconnecting from the film. Perhaps this is because they have the ability to separate themselves from reality as consumers of art, placing themselves in that two hour bubble of desensitisation. Sometimes it is as simple as inherent political differences. Ava Duvernay’s powerful and unique docudrama Origin is a whole different monolithic beast that serves as an antithesis to the fragility of these genre bindings.
Adapting a pseudo-biopic style, Duvernay frames her film around the creation of Isabel Wilkerson’s book ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’, as Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) goes on a journey of self-reflection following the untimely death of husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) and her mother Ruby (Emily Yancy), and the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of Hispanic American George Zimmerman.
The abhorrent, racially motivated murder of a Black boy at the hands of a Hispanic man prompts her to attempt to write about a world where the term racism has become diluted, looking at how we should be considering oppression as different to how we apply the term racism. Wilkerson embarks on a journey to discover the true pillars of power that have led to the systemic oppression of those wrongly deemed lesser, interviewing the same people that the real-life author and journalist Wilkerson spoke to for her book.
Duvernay pivots between stylistically ravishing feature-film photography when she is recreating events that utilise the iconography of Nazi Germany (eerily resembling that of the Charlottesville riots) and of stale interview compositions when Wilkerson is speaking to the subjects of her book. To some, this would indicate Origin is conflicted in format. That the best format for this story would be a documentary, but Duvernay has grander ambitions. The disparity between formats helps root this reconstruction of Wilkerson’s story not in the Matrix of fiction that we immerse ourselves in, but in real life, refusing to let audiences compartmentalise their emotions away from dealing with the disquietingly cold truth that we love in a caste society. Origin describes caste as the hierarchy of power that subconsciously governs the way we act towards the oppressed.
Origin ’s Streak Of Sentimentality
But Duvernany isn’t just info-dumping about caste from the perspective of Wilkerson’s editorial process. Duvernay melds together this dissertation-esque discussion on caste with a streak of sentimentality as Wilkerson’s process of overcoming personal grief becomes interchangeable with empathy for our fellow man. This sentimentality gives Origin a tangible evocation, engaging the audience in the personal bout of Wilkerson rather than solely her campaign to write a book. Through her grief, Wilkerson uncovers the pillars of caste that prevent one from loving another.
As she travels around the world, she unearths horrific instances of caste, finding out such cases as the treatment of Dalits (a supposedly lesser class that is responsible for the cleaning of excrement from sewer walls) in India, and the meeting notes of the Nazi Party that indicated American methods of segregation and slavery were the guidance to follow as to successfully persecute the Jews and commit the holocaust. This scene in particular has a harrowing flourish as Duvernay lets it play out in German, and without subtitles, before recontextualising it in English.
Love As The Bonds That Bind Us
Duvernay specifically highlights the importance of how breeding outside of the supposed social barriers of race, religion and creed was integral within the Nazi party’s bigotry. Recreating the segregation of Jews, Duvernay frames the relationship between Nazi member August Landmesser (Finn Witrock) and the Jewish Irma Eckler (Victoria Pedretti) as an act of resistance. That a Nazi party member can dissent in the name of love shows Duvernay, and subsequently Wilkerson’s, ideas on race and caste. Because Duvernay is not just discussing race or creed as the foundation of hatred, but about how the removal of love – in this case that of a Nazi with a Jew – is the catalyst that brings about caste.
In Origin, love and hate are at war with one another. By stripping away the idea of race or creed being a factor in the maintenance of the hatred people have towards a subset of society, Duvernay is able to tell a story that people have become desensitised to. She accomplishes this in a way that feels fresh and almost experimental in execution. Duvernay uses Wilkerson to say several things about caste society in this sprawling scholarly epic, piecing together what caste entails with evocative, harsh reconstructions of slave ships that then transpose into delicate imagery of oil being rubbed into skin. These scenes of a young black boy being forbidden from a swimming pool, and imagery of Jews being wrestled away from their children are distressing but they all serve to reinforce Duvernay’s true proposal with Origin: that the only things keeping love apart in this world are death and hate.
Origin premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2023 and will be released in theaters by Neon soon.