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Re-enact Naturally: New Docs Are Recasting the Old Practice of Dramatization

By Tom Powers

Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson) lowers deeper into the crevasse in 'Touching TheVoid,' directed by Kevin Macdonald. An IFC Films release.

Documentary filmmakers have been blowing smoke—figuratively and sometimes literally—right from the beginning. For their 1898 re-creation of the Battle of Santiago Bay, J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith employed a tub of water, toy boats, sparklers and cigar and cigarette smoke, which was blown across the battle scene by Mrs. Blackton standing just off-camera. Robert Flaherty propelled documentaries into the popular imagination with Nanook of the North (1922) and has been blasted for his dramatic manipulations ever since. (Filmmaker Emile de Antonio once said of Flaherty's idealized hero, "Nanook was not self-indulgent and romantic; he was an actor in a film by a self-indulgent romantic.")

Joris Ivens used dramatic re-enactments to supplement images of dike builders and striking miners in New Earth (1933) and Borinage (1934), and years later took a swipe at those who rigorously shunned such practices, observing, "In vérité the people talk too much and the director too little." Dziga Vertov's old battle cry, "Show us life!" generally held sway among film school graduates of the 1960s and '70s, but new films and formats kept popping up to complicate the debate.

Audiences were stunned by the final credit roll of Jim McBride's faux documentary David Holtzman's Diary (1968). Martha Coolidge turned Not a Pretty Picture (1977) into a hybrid doc-feature when the subject of her own rape became too overwhelming to fictionalize. Perhaps most influentially, Errol Morris staged multiple points of view in The Thin Blue Line (1988) as part of his own cinematic investigation that helped exonerate a convicted murderer.

From the Vitagraph Company to the Discovery Channel, reenactments have been a staple of the documentary enterprise, and lately they have been cropping up in some provocative new configurations.

With Touching the Void Kevin Macdonald creates a kind of aesthetic tug of war between talking-head interviews and re-enacted footage. For many critics the success or failure of the project seems to depend on how well the two formats coalesce. Touching the Void tells the story of a pair of mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who were the first to successfully scale a 20,853-foot peak called Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Unfortunately, as Simpson points out, 80 percent of mountain climbing accidents happen on the way down, and their own descent was a disaster. Simpson was left for dead on the mountain, there was no way he could get back, yet here he is talking to Macdonald's camera. His onscreen presence creates the film's overriding mystery—how did he survive the catastrophe we see being re-enacted?

Simpson and Yates are compelling storytellers, and Macdonald frames them in choker close-ups that contrast with the open vistas of the reenacted sequences, which were filmed largely in the European Alps. At times Macdonald creates a visual conversation between the two formats, for instance by cutting from a shot in which the camera tilts up the mountain peak to a matching movement of Simpson looking up in the studio. At other times there is a kind of emotional disjunction between the climbers' recollections and Macdonald's dramatizations. In his Los Angeles Times review, critic Kenneth Turan wrote, "The quality of the acting is not the problem, it's the contrast between the fake and the genuine that makes the former insupportable. To have performers feigning agony while real agony is being discussed on the soundtrack is distracting at the very least."

Still, Macdonald's handling of his re-enactors, Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (as Simon Yates), is largely effective because they do more climbing than talking. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review for the Chicago Sun Times, "The use of actors in those scenes is not a distraction because their faces are so bearded, frost-bitten and snow-caked that we can hardly recognize them." And, giving an Andy Kaufman-like spin to the whole issue of re-enactments, critic James Berardinelli noted in, "In an ironic twist, Joe and Simon doubled for the actors in medium and long-range shots. So, in effect, the real-life characters were substituting for the actors who were playing them."

Re-enactments were once seen as potentially—some would say necessarily—undermining the integrity of a film. That doesn't seem to be as much of an issue these days, partly because viewers are more alert—filmmakers don't want to get caught passing off a re-enactment as the real thing-and partly because aesthetic integrity has become a more nebulous concept in a culture swimming with samplings and pastiche. At any rate, most contemporary documentary directors announce their re-enactments, when necessary, with distinctive framing or camerawork (such as subjective points of view), tinting or other stylized visual markers. Filmmakers seem more concerned with the historical accuracy of their re-creations and, for want of a better term, their potential hokiness.

The use of actors in historical re-creations always entails the risk that their performances will seem heavy-handed. Consequently, many documentary makers tend to obscure or downplay the actors' presence, keeping them mute or in shadows, showing only parts of their bodies, turning them into representative figures rather than specific characters. Eric Stange, director of Murder at Harvard (PBS' American Experience, 2003), has challenged this convention. In an article he wrote for, Stange maintains, "The trouble with re-enactments that rely on the camera slowly panning across interior spaces where something important once happened and hazy shots of quills, weapons and detached body parts is that they leave viewers feeling distanced from the action instead of closer to it. Too often re-enactments come across as just what they are—half-hearted attempts to make history come alive in a dramatic way without using the elements that make for dramatic storytelling: language, facial expression, bodies reacting in relation to one another." 

Problems also arise when addressing a historical topic for which the filmmaker has few visual points of reference. Stange writes that his film, set in 1849, "is my first time tackling a subject that predates photography. And it's led me to wonder—when the very building blocks of documentary film are images, is it even appropriate to make a documentary about a subject that has left behind only a tiny handful of visual traces?"

Paradoxically, it was the incompleteness of the historical record that drew director Charles Burnett to Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (PBS' Independent Lens, 2004). With the encouragement of co-producer Kenneth Greenberg, a Boston historian who regards history as a fluctuating text, Burnett and producer Frank Christopher eschewed a straightforward account of the life of Turner, a Virginia slave who led a bloody uprising in 1831. Instead, they opted to look at the troubling ways in which Turner's iconic status has been appropriated over the years.

To foreground this shifting perspective, Burnett employed five different actors-including his longtime collaborators Carl Lumbly and Tommy Hicks—to play Turner in his different manifestations, from messianic rebel to abolitionist martyr to the sexually tormented avenger of William Styron's controversial 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. The camera even pulls back to show Burnett at work, staging the re-creations, talking to the actors. In an interview with critic Gerald Peary that appears on, co-producer Greenberg remarked, "Our basic style is to show things on the screen and then have the narration undercut what's there, complicating things, sitting on a border of fiction and history." To this end, the film presents a range of commentators, and they find one issue particularly nettlesome: William Styron's depiction of Nat Turner still rankles Black Americans. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., however, delivers the message that is most faithful to the vision of Burnett's film: "If you don't like Bill Styron's Nat Turner, write your own. I think the only way that you can fight a representation in art that you don't like is to create new art, create more art, surround it."

Jim Wolpaw brought a self-questioning, multi-pronged approach to the making of his new documentary, Loaded Gun: Life and Death and Dickinson. Shown this past winter on the ITVS series Independent Lens, Loaded Gun is a personal inquiry into the meaning of one of Emily Dickinson's poems ("My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—In Corners—till a Day/The Owner passed—identified—And carried Me away—"), as well as an account of her life. Confronted with both a paucity of visual material—there is only one surviving photograph of Dickinson—and a scarcity of agreed-upon information, Wolpaw adopted an idiosyncratic approach. He opens the film with a dream about Emily Dickinson playing second base, deftly tagging out a runner. He then recruits a rock combo to belt out one of Dickinson's poems and gets US Poet Laureate Billy Collins to read his own composition, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes." Along the way, Wolpaw interviews psychiatrists, a Dickinson biographer, actress Julie Harris and a pair of bickering English professors.

"I've always done things to push [the documentary form] a little bit," Wolpaw says. "I was always puzzled by people who reacted as if we were breaking rules that shouldn't be broken."

Loaded Gun includes a few standard re-creations—Dickinson smashing a chipped plate and later gift-wrapping a severed cat's tail—and for these Wolpaw adheres to the convention of just showing hands and feet and details. But Wolpaw also took a new tack: he ran an ad in a trade publication soliciting performers to play Dickinson. The film's credits list 22 "auditioning Emilies" (more than a thousand actors responded to the ad), who were given background material, quotes and poems, put into costume and makeup, and then asked a series of questions, such as "Why don't you ever leave your house?"..."Miss Dickinson, are you in love with death?"...and "Describe what would be for you a truly wild night." The answers are evocative, if not revealing. In particular Wolpaw cites a young actress with braces on her teeth who says Emily's idea of a wild night would be "in the dark with my dog and a cup of tea."

"Documentaries need to do the same things good narratives do—draw people in right from the beginning and present good stories, interesting characters," Wolpaw says. "To me, it's fair game to do anything to get people in, as long as you don't misrepresent anything."

But is everything really fair game? In Warming by the Devil's Fire, an episode of the Martin Scorsese-produced series The Blues: A Musical Journey (2003), Charles Burnett creates an audiovisual melange that may be prophetic of where creative documentaries are heading.

Burnett notes in the DVD of the series that he approached the project with the attitude of a blues player: "Take it and make it your own." Warming by the Devil's Fire includes a fictional framing story (featuring Tommy Hicks and narrated by Carl Lumbly) that Burnett intercuts with old archival footage, performances and interviews and a re-enactment of W.C. Handy first encountering a blues singer. Among the film's crazy quilt of sounds and scenes are at least two pieces of dramatized footage that remain unidentified, either through subtitles or in the end credits, although they are lifted from fictional works that have their own history and integrity. One is a snippet from King Vidor's feature Hallelujah (1929) and the other is a longer excerpt from Dudley Murphy's short film, St. Louis Blues (1929), starring Bessie Smith. Fifty years ago the philosopher T.W. Adorno decried "the universal injustice that lies in exchangeability and substitution," and today one can't help wondering: When every cinematic artifact becomes simply grist for the mill of the next filmmaker, can the documentary form retain its rigorous commitment to truth-telling?

Documentary re-enactments are likely to proliferate—hopefully in imaginative new ways—as long as the marketplace exerts its relentless pressure to make information entertaining. But it's a fickle marketplace, where even filmmakers are fungible. On his current website,, Morris has posted a 1988 letter from Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein complaining that Morris was giving tepid interviews in promoting The Thin Blue Line. "If you continue to be boring, I will hire an actor in New York to pretend that he's Errol Morris," Weinstein wrote. "If you have any casting suggestions, I'd appreciate that."


Tom Powers teaches Cinema Studies at Illinois State University.

SOURCES: De Antonio—Barbara Zheutlin, "The Politics of Documentary: A Symposium," from New Challenges for Documentary (Alan Rosenthal, editor); Ivens—JeffreyYoudelman, "Narration, Invention, and History," from New Challenges for Documentary; Adorno—Minima Moralia.