Reenactments and documentaries have gone hand in hand since the inception of the genre. Reenactments, although often unappreciated, take the viewer a step further than just hearing the story being told; they place the audience into the story. This, when done well, results in an unbelievable viewing experience that can beautifully blend the lines between documentary and narrative film
In my opinion, When talking about reenactments in documentaries you can really only start with one film, Errol Morris’ 1988 film Thin Blue Line. The Documentary is an investigation of the murder of a Dallas Police officer, Robert Wood, in 1976. David Harris testified that Randall Adams, who was with Harris the night of the killing, was person guilty of shooting the officer in cold blood. The film progresses to show the series of events, like poor timing, misinformation, ulterior motives, and downright lies, that lead to a wrongful conviction. The story behind the documentary is fascinating in and of its self and should be viewed just for that, however for me the true gems of the film are the multiple reenactments of the murder. The each reenactment is shown from a different witnesses’ point of view, and changes slightly with each of their interpretations of the crime. This was done so successfully that it allowed the audience to better understand the case, separate facts from fiction for themselves, and come to their own conclusion about who was actually guilty.
The reenactments in Thin Blue Line are vastly different from the reenactments of most film and television documentaries. Having them shot in very low key lighting, and having characters in question silhouetted gave the documentary’s cinematography an almost Film-Noir feeling. These techniques are effectively used for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps most obviously, it helps set the over all mood of the film; uncertainty in regards to the case. The low-key lighting also adds a stark contrast between the interviews and the reenactments; while the silhouetted framing of the suspects reinforces the idea the viewer has limited information about what actually happened. Ironically Thin Blue Line was not considered for Best Documentary, because according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the reenactments made the movie “a fiction film,” not a documentary, I however strongly disagree.
Another documentary with reenactments worthy of mentioning is, my personal favorite documentary, The Stories We Tell directed by the talented actress, and arguably more talented writer and director Sarah Polley. The movie is multidimensional and has many twists, turns, and subplots, but is for the most part about the life of Sarah’s mother, Diane and an affair that she may or may not have had which may or may not have produced Sarah. The movie also deals with her family’s different interpretations and memories of the story and the past, dealing with the main theme of the film, the faultiness and unreliability of memory. The story of Sarah’s mother’s life is complexly beautiful, sorrowful and somehow simultaneously joyful, and was portrayed excellently in the reenactments.
Of cores, crappy reenactments can be just as entertaining…