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Reenactments in Documentary Films: Is There an Authentic Truth in Documentary?

Documentaries are often labelled subjective or objective, but arguably a purely objective documentary does not exist. Susan Kouguell explains why.

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Replicate. Reproduce. Reveal. Is there an authentic truth in documentary?

The use of reenactment in documentary films has filmmakers, film theorists and critics divided. Some believe the use of reenactments brings historical accuracy into question while others feel it enhances history. More recently, exploitative crime television shows and docudramas that utilize reenactments are often over-the-top melodrama, thus further fueling this topic and giving it a poor name.

Documentaries are often labelled subjective or objective, but arguably a purely objective documentary does not exist. Why? Documentarians are always making choices: what, where and how to shoot, who and what to include and who and what not to include in the film, and how to structure the film -- in a nonlinear or linear fashion. All these can elements subtly -- or not so subtly -- reveal the filmmaker’s attitude about the subject matter and in turn this influences the audience’s response.

Documentary Films

Reenactments in documentary films have a long tradition. Stepping back for a moment in time, let’s examine a few examples.

Considered to be the first full-length documentary Nanook of the North, (1922) directed by Robert Flaherty, involved a group of Inuit, living on the Hudson Bay coast below the Arctic Circle. This silent film contains several reenacted and restaged scenes, including a walrus hunt. Ethnographic director Flaherty argued that because the recreated scenes were based on his subjects’ memories, he believed the film was truthful in spirit.

German director Harun Farocki’s anti-war documentary Inextinguishable Fire (1969, black and white, 29 minutes) explores the manufacturing and use of napalm by reenacting the inner workings of Dow Chemical Company’s Michigan headquarters during the Vietnam War, using only a small amount of actual combat footage. Taking the idea of recreation and reenactment a bold step further, director Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998) is a 30-minute, shot-for-shot remake of Inextinguishable Fire. Translated from German into English and filmed on color Kodachrome, the backdrops, props, script, costumes and shots are all copies of the original. Every shot is reproduced -- with an occasional superimposition of Farocki’s film.

Director Errol Morris’s film The Thin Blue Line (1988) employed staged re-enactment scenes of a police officer's murder in order to demonstrate various witnesses’ contradictory testimonies. The film argued that Randall Adams was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County Texas.

In a 2014 interview for this publication, I asked writer, producer, director Allie light, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for In The Shadow Of The Stars with her partner Irving Saraf, about the use of reenactments in her films.

LIGHT: “A good reason for doing reenactments is that the past lives of most people are not documented, so very little material exists to tell the story. Film is a medium of action. If the documentary or non-fiction filmmaker relies only on the interview, the story is stagnant and becomes merely a retelling of the past. No matter how good the story is, it will bore the viewer and viewers are then a trapped audience with nothing to look at. Our very short reenactments, usually only seconds long, we call emotional equivalents. We treat these images much like Alfred Stieglitz treated his cloud photographs--he called them ‘equivalents of his own experiences, thoughts, and emotion.’ Most of the reenactments in my film Dialogues With Madwomen are equivalents of what is being spoken at that moment.”

Do reenactments work? Will employing this device in the film that you are working on enhance or detract from your project? In the end, it is a decision only you, the documentarian can answer.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College and presents international workshops and seminars on screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide.,

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