The Case for Reenactment in Documentary Cinema

The new film 1971 (out in limited release this Friday) is, at least on the surface, a heist movie, and is styled accordingly. Its protagonists meet in dark rooms and strategize, divvying up jobs and looking over maps and schedules. The break-in man sits off in the corner, practicing picking locks. They case the target, staking out the building in question from cars, painstakingly logging the activities outside. And when the big night comes — fight night, in true Ocean’s 11 form they don their disguises, slip in while no one’s looking, and go to work. It’s all elegantly photographed and masterfully edited, with the attractive cast coming, it seems, within a hair of being caught and sent to the hoosegow. But 1971 is different from your usual heist movie for two reasons: it’s a true story (our protagonists are stealing files from an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania), and it’s a documentary. But it’s a documentary that uses extensive reenactments to tell its story — and that once-controversial device is something no one seems to mind all that much anymore.

It wasn’t always so. For too long, the rules of the documentary form were set in stone: archival footage, talking heads, voice-over narration. That playbook thickened in the 1960s with the rise of cinéma vérité, which inserted the present tense into documentary; thanks to the proliferation of lighter cameras and mobile sound equipment, filmmakers could cover events (a presidential primary, a rock concert, a union strike) as they happened, and profile subjects (musicians, Bible salesmen, and other peculiar characters) as they lived their lives.

Still image from "The Thin Blue Line"

Then came The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris’ groundbreaking 1988 investigative documentary used extensive crime-scene reenactments to recreate the central murder, and to dramatize the Rashomon-style discrepancies in the accounts of witnesses, suspects, and police. Thin Blue Line was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever at the time, but it was not nominated for that year’s Best Documentary Oscar, and most awards-watchers pinned that snub on the reenactments, which had rubbed the purists on the nominating committee the wrong way. “Critics don’t like reenactments in documentary films,” Morris wrote two decades later, “perhaps because they think that documentary images should come from the present, that the director should be hands-off. But a story in the past has to be reenacted.”

On one hand, whadda bunch of fuddy-duddies. On the other, it’s easy to understand the resistance to reenactment, since, well, so many of them are so terrible. The late-‘80s and early-‘90s period when Morris was figuring out how to use dramatization as a documentary tool coincides with the televised likes of Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911, non-fiction programming whose reenactments were so cheeseball that they left a stench on the entire device.

So what changed? Oddly enough, television may be to thank (or blame). There’s a prevailing theory, one which this observer agrees with, that the rise of reality television around the turn of the century was, in fact, a big lift for documentary film — that by appropriating the aesthetic tools of the trade, the handheld camera and talking-head interviews and you-are-there vérité immediacy, reality shows “normalized” tools for viewers who might not have otherwise ventured into an art house (or, more likely, clicked on a streaming Netflix title) to see a conventional documentary.

The flip side, however, is that documentaries had to find ways to separate themselves from what was increasingly seen as the reality television style — and just when advances in video technology had allowed documentarians to make films at a fraction of the budget of those just a decade ahead of them (raw tape is a helluva lot pricier than raw film stock, and you don’t have to develop it). But a few years ago, the lightning-speed leaps in the quality of HD video meant that, even on a budget, independent filmmakers could shoot gorgeous footage that looked more big-budget and “cinematic” than ever before.

Still image from "Man on Wire"

And thus, re-enactments aren’t just a gimmick, or a cost-cutting measure. They become an arrow in the documentarian’s quiver, a storytelling tool that not only fills in gaps, but creates mood and tension. The secretive nature of the operation at the center of 1971 means that, even if tools of documentation had been available to its subjects, they wouldn’t have partaken of them; director Johanna Hamilton’s ability to recreate those events, to dramatize the danger of the break-in and the intensity of its aftermath, are what separates her work from that of, say, someone writing a book on the topic. The copious reenactments in James Marsh’s Man on Wire are so stylish and sharp that, Joseph Gordon-Levitt love aside, it’s difficult to imagine what more we’ll get out of the story from its upcoming rendition, as conventional narrative, in The Walk. (Wire’s 2008 Oscar win just goes to show how far conventional thinking has pivoted on this.)

And in the hands of a stylist like Morris and a film like The Thin Blue Line, reenactments can serve to illustrate the inherent unknowability of objective “truth,” to say nothing of creating the kind of hypnotic mood that prompted Miramax to promote it not as a documentary but as “nonfiction noir.” (They were also dodging the documentary label, which was considered box-office poison.) Don’t get me wrong — there’s no shortage of bad reenactments out there, confirmed by not only a visit to the TruTV or the History Channel, but to plenty of lesser documentaries. But it’s thankfully become a question of aesthetics rather than ethics.

“Critics argue that the use of reenactments suggest a callous disregard on the part of a filmmaker for what is true,” Morris writes. “I don’t agree. Some reenactments serve the truth, others subvert it. There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens – no lens that provides a ‘truthful’ picture of events. There is cinéma vérité and kino pravda but no cinematic truth.” And as long as that remains the case, kudos to the filmmakers who are willing to use all the tools at their disposal to chase that elusive truth.

1971 is out Friday in theaters. The Thin Blue Line is out next month on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.