Reality Stars: “The Non-Actor” Surveys Amateur Performance in the Movies


“An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country,” the French director Robert Bresson wrote. “He does not speak its language.” By 1975, when he published his volume of aphorisms and stylistic guidelines, Notes on the Cinematograph, Bresson had already made more than a half-dozen films without the use of professional actors. These works, according to the director, sever the umbilical cord that links movies to theater by “creating” rather than merely “reproducing.” Crucial to this, for Bresson, was the role of the non-actor — or “model,” in his terminology — who would bring to films the qualities of real life rather than just simulation.

These ideas were a deliberate rejection of how most people — including most filmmakers — think of film performance. No stunt-casting or above-title billing for Bresson: He wanted a certain austere, idiosyncratic quality in his performers that he could only find in the unknown and the untutored. (And, quite famously, he became annoyed when his “models,” like Anne Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda, wanted to pursue acting careers.) Bresson’s results may not strike viewers as particularly realistic: His models often stare affectlessly into space and deliver dialogue in a clipped, uninflected monotone. But while these theories of performance are no doubt extreme, they’re not altogether unusual: The nonprofessional performance casts a long shadow in the history of the cinema.

This phenomenon is now the subject of a new Film Society of Lincoln Center series, “The Non-Actor” (November 24–December 10), an expansive survey of films that similarly exhibit the talents of the untrained performer. Drawing together nearly three dozen films, the program traces a fascinating lineage of amateur performance across history, geography, and genre. From agitprop and docufiction to neorealist art cinema and Warholian experimentation, the series highlights some of the inventive ways filmmakers have enlisted the non-actor to create new hybrids of the real and the imaginary.

Representing Bresson in the series is his 1966 Au hasard Balthazar, starring the ultimate non-actor: a donkey. But while Bresson’s project marks one extreme for non-professional performance, other examples are not always so rigorous or rule-bound. Frequently, the casting of non-actors serves as a practical bulwark, whether against a lack of cash needed to hire available stars or against spontaneous challenges to the nature of any given production. The great mid-century African-American director Spencer Williams — already a seasoned performer and filmmaker in both Hollywood and independently produced “race films” — cast his oneiric, microbudget religious parable The Blood of Jesus (1941) with nonprofessional actors from the film’s rural Texas locations. Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, too, made Our Beloved Month of August (2008) with locals found in the rural village of Arganil where he was shooting after the money for the production fell through — a development that becomes a subplot of the film’s languorously convoluted pivot between fact and fiction.

Chinese director Liu Jiayin’s films have a similar economy of means: For her first film, Oxhide (2005), she cast herself and her parents in a raucous comedy-melodrama set entirely in the family’s five-hundred-square-foot Beijing apartment. In just twenty-three long-take set-ups — each shot with the heightened claustrophobia of a tight Cinemascope close-up — Oxhide enlists the trio in a scripted story of financial strain in contemporary China modeled closely on their real lives, but is mostly effective as an intimate group self-portrait of gossiping, working, bickering, and especially eating. (Liu continued the film four years later with a sequel: 2009’s Oxhide II.)

Traditionally, of course, the non-actor is enlisted to help lend a veneer of naturalism to the otherwise wholly staged. This is, curiously, the legacy of documentary — at least as it was first conceived, by the American ethnographer Robert Flaherty. Compared with the cinema vérité works that would become the fashion in the ’60s and ’70s, Flaherty’s documentaries are really fictions produced with non-actors on their home turf. If films like Nanook of the North (1922) or Man of Aran (1934) feel staged, if not wholly fictitious, that’s because they were. The Film Society’s Flaherty offering here, Louisiana Story (1948), features winsome characters (including a wily pet raccoon) in thrilling dramatic sequences. The largely tensionless premise — the friendly encounter between a Cajun family and the nice oil-drillin’ folks at Standard Oil, who commissioned the film — becomes secondary to the subtropical wonders and perils of the bayou, photographed in all its mossy, swampy glory by the great cinematographer Ricky Leacock.

“The Non-Actor” features a number of variations on Flaherty’s brand of docufiction, including Tabu (1931) — a romantic Polynesian idyll that the German director F.W. Murnau, known for his exquisite blocking and lavish set design, conceived in collaboration with Flaherty — as well as the work of the French ethnographer Jean Rouch. Jaguar (1954/1967), Rouch’s hilariously anarchic variation on the form and an example of what he termed “ethno-fiction,” enlists a trio of Songhai men to reenact their migration from Sahel in Niger to the Gold Coast in search of work. Onscreen, the group offer a kind of hammed-up demonstration of their travels, while on the soundtrack they collectively send up the traditional “voice of God” narration of the Western ethnographer with their own insights and wisecracks.

The non-actor’s role often helps to interrupt or complicate the cinema’s storied powers of illusion, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s sublime casting of a nineteen-year-old Spanish economics major and anti-fascist activist as Jesus in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), or in Abbas Kiarostami’s famously delirious collaboration with cinephile and con-man Hossain Sabzian in Close-Up (1990). But counterintuitively, their presence often helps to create an illusion all its own: the reproduction of “real life” through the use of “real people.” This is the paradoxical magic of neorealism, developed so persuasively by postwar Italian directors who derived a special kind of deconstructed authenticity from location-shooting and the casting of non-professionals. Directors like Roberto Rossellini (Germany Year Zero [1948]), Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D. [1952]), and Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto [1961]) mainstreamed a certain sense of rawness that would prove immensely influential on independent and arthouse pieces produced all over the world: Satyajit Ray’s aching portrait of Bengali village life, Pather Panchali (1955); Shirley Clarke’s swinging, improvisatory adaptation of Warren Miller’s novel about Harlem street gangs, The Cool World (1963); Matt Porterfield’s semifictional study of Baltimore kids, Putty Hill (2010). Why fake it, after all, if you have the real thing close at hand?

In neorealism, the presence of the non-actor lends that note of gritty verisimilitude that can’t quite be reproduced by the professional actor — a fact that the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso gorily confirms in his 2004 Los Muertos, in which he films his lead non-actor, Argentino Vargas, killing and butchering a goat in one unbroken long take. But it also serves the perhaps-humane gesture of returning the right of self-representation to those who are often most denied it.

Commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) epically re-creates the events of 1917 with an enormous cast of non-actors, the better to represent those world-shaking ten days as an insurrection of the people. This project has been taken up in surprising ways. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) is a collaborative semidocumentary portrait of indigenous youth culture in Los Angeles, a volatile mix of staged and observational sequences and a shared auto-ethnographic voiceover. Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1966), too, generates much of its power from the performance of its lead non-actor, Mbissine Thérèse Diop, and her psychological distance from the exploitative culture of wealth and whiteness that surrounds her. And even in Albert Serra’s adaptation of Don Quixote, 2006’s Knight’s Honor, there’s an element of provocation in recasting Spain’s national heroes with a pair of Catalan nonprofessionals, subverting any trace of period-piece stylization with gruff, understated performances and grungy digital video.

The British filmmaker Peter Watkins took Eisenstein’s notion of a collectivist reenactment project to its furthest extent. In 1971’s Punishment Park, Watkins extrapolates from the then-recent trial of the Chicago Seven a dystopian war game between leftwing activists and militarist police officers for which he cast people according to their actual political backgrounds and beliefs. Filmed in the language of vérité, Watkins’s quasi-sci-fi scenario often blurs with the actual tensions among cast members that he captures onscreen — tensions which very nearly bubbled over into actual conflicts on set. (Lizzie Borden executes a similar mode of future imagining in her bad-ass 1983 feminist masterpiece Born in Flames.)

If anything, though, “The Non-Actor” demonstrates the inherent volatility in the way that cinema continually tries to capture and recapture a sense of reality that is always just beyond its grasp. The amateur performers in these films may be playing versions of themselves or wholly fictitious figures, but always their presence usefully interrupts the cinema’s usual project of crafting a too-perfect illusion of the real. After all, our IRL identities are nothing like the contiguous entities we see and hear onscreen in most commercial films.

In the brilliant short feature Flat Is Beautiful (1999), Sadie Benning illustrates this succinctly by having non-actors — including protagonist Taylor, a young tomboy exploring their gender identity — wear cartoonish paper masks over their faces. Filming working-class Milwaukee in jagged, black-and-white Super8 and PixelVision, Benning highlights the many complications of “authenticity,” using the non-actors’ masks to evoke the often-prescribed nature of identity from which the film’s protagonist is attempting to break free. Much like Pedro Costa’s work — instanced in the Film Society’s series with his extraordinary Colossal Youth (2006) — Benning’s film doesn’t so much mine its non-actors for their sense of “unfiltered reality” as use them to foreground the incommensurable mix of sincerity and performance that make up all of our many real-life identities.

“The Non-Actor”
Film Society of Lincoln Center
November 24–December 10