Re-Enacting History

The New York Times has addressed the controversial practice of documentary filmmakers using re-enactment footage. It turns out that the Oscar-winning documentary short, Mighty Times: The Children’s March (IMDB), used undisclosed re-enactment footage in its portrayal of a 1963 Civil Rights protest involving thousands of children. There is some debate about the amount of re-created footage, but Eyes on the Prize producer and cinematographer John Else estimates that approximately half the footage was fabricated.

Defining the boundary between “re-enacted” footage and “real” footage is, of course, a sticky problem, but the degree to which these filmmakers, Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, worked to mask the re-enactment footage seems a little unethical to me, especially their attempt to “mesh seamlessly” re-enactments with footage taken at the actual event. It’s a description that Houston welcomes:

“That’s my quote: ‘Thank you,’ ” Mr. Houston said. “The way we make our films is like baking a biscotti. We make a classic documentary using the archival record. We then make another layer of film. We bake the cookie twice, like a biscotti. That second layer of film fills in the gaps, and what you end up with is a seamless telling and definitive telling of unknown chapters from civil rights history.”

While I have no basic objections to using re-enactment footage, I’m a little uncomfortable with this characterization of documentary storytelling. Aren’t these “gaps” the real story? Isn’t it more significant to acknowledge the documentary filmmaker’s role in reconstructing this history from the evidence she or he collects along the way? In general, I have some real objections to any claims that you’re presenting events “as they really were,” to paraphrase Benjamin, and this practice of using extensive re-enactments in this way could certainly be used in ways that are highly unethical.

Later in the Times article, filmmaker John Else discusses teh question of “re-enactments” in terms of Errol Morris’s use of them in The Thin Blue Line, but the crucial difference is that Morris uses this technique to question the stories of several of his witnesses, not to create a “seamless” narrative that presents history as it happened. In fact, these re-enactments are clearly marked by formal features, such as film noir lighting and the Philip Glass score.

To be fair, I haven’t seen “The Children’s March,” so I can’t comment specifically on how re-enactments are used, but I think this is a question that merits consideration. I think it’s both naive and limiting to expect that documentary filmmakers not use re-enactment footage (after all history is nothing but interpretation), but it’s also risky to present that footage as “real” without the practice being used in ways that might be highly unethical.

4 Comments »

  1. Chris Cagle Said,

    March 29, 2005 @ 4:14 pm

    Man, what a quote! A biscotti? Nothing convinces people that you’re taking your charge in telling the truth seriously like a cookie reference.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 30, 2005 @ 9:47 am

    Yeah, the biscotti line was bad, sounds really flippant. I’m tempted to say the guy’s approach to truth is “half-baked” rather than “twice-baked,” a la the biscotti.

  3. Jimbo Said,

    April 3, 2005 @ 12:17 pm

    This debate reminds me of the debate over “re-creating” dialogue in some recent history writing. I agree with you about acknowledging the “gaps” in the historical record. Morris’ re-enactments worked and were unobjectionable, I think, because he never pretended that they were anything but reconstruction, a recurring rhetorical image on which to hang his interpretation.

    Though Michael Moore does not, as far as I know, use disguised re-eneactments, his editing procedures often produce a similar result: we draw inferences from the sequence of images that are really only a product of the editing technique.

    On the other hand, re-enactments have been used almost since the dawn of film making. Many have indeed posited that narrative filmmaking has its origins in staging re-enactments, especially of some of the major events in the Spanish American War.

    jwb

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 3, 2005 @ 6:32 pm

    Jimbo, I agree that Moore’s editing, especially in Roger & Me, can be inappropriately manipulative.

    But you’re also right to note that re-enactments are a historical problem, dating back to the earliest moments of cinema. In my film classes, I often show The Execution of Czoglosz, which was an Edison film that mixes docuemnatry footage of the Auburn prison with a re-creation of the execution of President McKinley’s assassin.

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