Episode 9: Reenactments in Documentary

"The American imagination demands the real thing, and to attain, must fabricate the absolute fake"- Umberto Eco

A controversial topic indeed!  A feature of documentaries that dates back to the beginning, but still raises questions today.  When you hear the term "reenactment", many of you may picture the over effected reenactments of Unsolved Mysteries, Rescue 911, or many history documentaries.  These shows, which became popularized in the late 1980s- 1990s, made the reenactment so cheesy it became inedible.  However, this does not take away it's importance in even over dramatized TV shows such as those.  Therefore, the mission of this episode is to explore deeper into the history and context of the reenactment by looking at how different directors over time have uniquely and purposefully used the reenactment in their documentaries.  Hopefully through these examples, we can develop our own position on whether the documentary reenactment is a legitimate tool in story telling, or mind manipulation.

First, let's get on the same page about what a reenactment is.  A documentary reenactment is a recreation of a real event in history.  This scene might need to be recreated for a number of reasons:

  • It took place before the invention of the moving image
  • It was impossible for the filmmaker to have filmed the event when it was happening
  • There is speculation as to the reality of the event

Writer/ producer/ director, Allie Light, who won a Best Documentary Academy Award in 1992 for her film In The Shadow of the Stars, says about her personal use of reenactments:

" 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."

This is hard to argue with.  Without reenactments, documentaries could only be based around current events in which the filmmaker was able to be present.  Without reenactments, many documentaries would be nothing more than a series of interviews and talking heads.  So why then, are people so dismissive of them?  To understand better, we will have to visit some of our more suspicious characters.


1. Nanook of the North

In the early days of film, one of the first intentionally made documentaries Nanook of the North, also the first film made by travelogue documentarian Robert Flaherty, received monumental acclaim and praise for his look into the harsh lives of the indigenous people of the north Canadian arctic.  At this time, these types of travelogue documentaries were the only exposure audiences had to the rest of the world.  Except for looking at photos in books, travelogues brought a new kind of reality and storytelling to the masses.  Therefore, when it was discovered that Robert Flaherty had directed the Inuk family he was following to use older methods of hunting like spear fishing for the production of his film (by the 1920s, even Inuits had guns) the public became confused and felt deceived.  Besides the staged hunting scenes, it was also later discovered that Inuk's (the father and main character) wife was not really his own, and that methods of igloo building were far out of date.  

But the question still remains, how much was Flaherty trying to deceive, if all staged scenes were at one point true and real?  Especially at a time where it was difficult to see people outside of your own state or even city, was he doing the public a disservice by exaggerating the lifestyles of an alien culture?  Or could he be seen as an educator, exposing how differently people live depending on their environments, thus opening our minds?

2. Land Without Bread

While Robert Flaherty tried to blend and conceal the artistic choices he made in his documentary, Luis Bunuel did quite the opposite in his "documentary" (can I even call it that?) Land Without Bread made in 1933.  Bunuel was a known surrealist filmmaker at this point, collaborating with big names like Salvador Dali.  In this documentary, Bunuel filmed a tiny village in his home country of Spain, showing it's poverty and the sad (but often clever) survival methods of it's citizens.  With the pairing of narration to explain what the viewer is watching, we learn how difficult life is in the region of Las Hurdes.  However, while the footage may be real, the narration is not.  Bunuel pairs a serious voice with grim information, giving the footage a brand new meaning.  There are even some moments in this short documentary, where Bunuel is directly interfering with the filmming itself, for example pushing a goat off a cliff.  While we see this happening, we hear the narrator tell us that the only way for people to eat meat is to wait for a goat to fall and die.  While watching this short clip, try to forget  that this is manipulated information and ask yourself if you would believe the story being presented to you as an audience member in the 1930s.

Before you condemn Bunuel for being a liar and cheat, think about his background as a surrealist filmmaker and artist and how this might affect his approach towards documentaries.  Bunuel realized early on, with the help of filmmakers like Flaherty, how manipulative the medium of filmmaking is, even when trying to show honest depictions like in a documentary. For Bunuel, Land Without Bread was a lesson to audiences not to believe everything you see, to be wary of this medium that can capture real life, and never forget that it is still storytelling and an artist's choice of what to show and what to keep out.

3. Might Times: The Children's March

This more contemporary documentary short, made in 2004 by Robert Houston for HBO looked at the march in Birmingham led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.  Using plenty of archival footage from this era, Houston also took the liberty of employing up to 700 extras, using period accurate cars and firetrucks, and even training dogs to act appropriately while shooting scenes of this footage in Southern California.  The footage was then digitally altered and affected to look like the same film quality of the archives.  In this clip, use your eagle eye to see if you can pick out which footage might have been shot on scene, or shot 40 years later.

Too hard to tell?  Prestigious filmmaker, Jon Else, was brought in by the Academy (after granting Houston with a 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short) to evaluate the ethics behind this film.  Here's what he said in his interview on NPR's "All Things Considered":

"The real archive footage and the very skillfully dramatized [reenacted] footage are seamlessly woven together.  So that the audience has no way of knowing whether a particular shot of Police Commissioner Bull Connor is the real Bull Connor or an actor.  That's a problem.  The other problem is that there are shots from other cities at other times that are edited into the events in Birmingham.  No one has any problem with reenactment.  We all do reenactment from time to time.  The question raised here is whether it is appropriate to use reenactment that the audience does not know is reenactment."

4.  The Jinx

This is another uniquely interesting example of how a reenactment is being used to mislead, but not by trying to confuse the viewer with what is real and what was recreated.  In this mini series made by director Andrew Jarecki for HBO in 2015, the implementation of reenactments were used for emotional stimulation and style.  Jarecki was in an interesting position in making this documentary series, because only five years prior, he had made a totally dramatized depiction of the same story: the troubled history of Robert Durst, from the real estate Durst dynasty of New York, and his alleged involvements in the murder of his wife.  Robert Durst contacted Jarecki on his own to ask if Jarecki would be interested in interviewing him on the subject of his wife's disappearance as well as other murders he is being accused of in order to get his story straight.  Jarecki coming from a scripted version of this story already, allowed much of that to leak into his documentary interpretation as well.  Reenactments used in The Jinx  are questionable because while it has still not been proven exactly what Robert Durst's role was in these murders, the reenactments portray an anonymous shadowed culprit with his same stature and gait.  Therefore Jarecki seems to be leading the audience down the path of thinking he is most definitely guilty (as they are watching him carry out these acts on screen) but without coming out and actually saying it himself.  This brings up the question of how much can we rely on our audience to assume?  If you see a reenactment of Durst disposing of a body, you know that there was no way for a film crew to be there to capture that moment.  And if there was, there would be no mystery as to whether he did it.  But even knowing this somewhere in your consciousness, watching him do it in a staged scene still sways your opinion.  This trailer for the show, uses many of the reenactments seen in episodes to build interest and intrigue.



1. The Thin Blue Line

The 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line by legendary documentarian Errol Morris made people think twice about the power of reenactments.  Morris investigates the murder of Dallas police officer in 1976 (12 years before the documentary was made) in which a 26 year old man was wrongfully accused, convicted, and sentenced to death.  As Morris began to investigate and perform interviews for this documentary, he began to notice the many inconsistencies between reports, peoples' memories of what happened, and trial notes.  Major and minor details were all over the place, yet a verdict was still reached.  Therefore, Morris found that in order to illustrate these inconsistencies effectively, he could not only rely on interviews.  So he turned to the power of visual story telling to get across how important these small details were.  Not only did this method put Errol Morris and reenactments on the map, but it got the accused man, Randall Dale Adams off death row.

What makes Morris so respectable is that he manages to create reenactments that do not look like they are trying to fool the audience, but at the same time, does not try to hide that they are reenactments.  Instead he intentionally highlights this format to get a point across.  His crisp and dramatic visual style is easy to separate from our understanding of what footage would look like if it were shot in real time.  His editing techniques of slowing footage down, or repeatedly zooming in, also helps us in understanding when we are watching a reenactment without having to include text, like we would see on a TV show.

2.  Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Renown filmmaker Werner Herzog, known for his daring and strange story telling techniques, also makes the reenactment his own in his 1997 documentary LIttle Dieter Needs to Fly.  This is the story of a German American pilot, Dieter Dengler, who from a young age in Germany, dreams of flying planes for the US Navy.  His wish comes true and he becomes a pilot during the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, his plane is shot down over Laos and he becomes a prisoner of the Vietcong.  Herzog took special interest in this story because of the hero being a fellow German, and the intensity behind his story.  Dieter explains his time as a POW and the relationships formed with his captors as well as his escape from the prison camp and return to America.  However Herzog takes an extremely compelling story a step further, but asking Dieter to accompany him back to Vietnam, to the exact location of his prison camp to reenact the torture of his imprisonment.

This reenactment changes the definition we have come to create so far, by using the real character in the dramatization as well.  In some ways, it makes the reenactment seem more truthful and honest by not using actors.  But it can also still be manipulated and designed by the filmmaker.  How does this affect the story differently for us as the viewers?  

3. The Arbor

Another truly unique take on the documentary by Clio Barnard, The Arbor released in 2010 takes us through the tragic life and great work of British playwright Andrea Dunbar and her life climbing out of the projects, through the usage of archival footage, street performances, but most importantly for our purposes, testimonials from friends and family.  Barnard decided to put a new spin on these testimonials by recording the audio of her actual interviews with those who were close to Andrea, but having actors reenact the interviews, lip synching their movements with the audio.  The International Documentary Association describes Barnard's artistic vision this way:

"These reenactments are lip- synched to genuine audio interviews and photographed in meticulously staged environments- most often impoverished apartments lit with despondent blues and grays- that both enrich our contextual understanding of Dunbar's background and pay homage to her work in theater.  Indeed, judging from the anecdotes included, all of which are mouthed to the audience by actors who hauntingly and relentlessly break the fourth wall, it seems as though Dunbar's day to day existence, was rife with the exaggerated tragedies of the stage."
Besides perhaps protecting the identity of Dunbar's relations, Barnard uses this idea to keep a haunting and eerie feeling throughout the documentary, almost as if these people are speaking through a medium from beyond the grave.


While it is still up for debate on the ethics of using reenactments in documentaries, no one can deny their effect.  Reenactments keep a documentary dynamic, they can be used as a means of artistic expression, and they can do what sometimes verbal explanation cannot.

Therefore, this fat cat concludes that the issue is not so much with whether reenactments are ethical, but are they documentarians using them acting ethically?  Keep in mind the important lesson learned from Luis Bunuel's Land Without Bread.  Why do we trust any part of the documentary?  How do we know the legitimacy of interviews when there is still an editor deciding what information to show in whatever context he/she chooses?  Why do we believe "anonymous sources" in the newspaper?  Why do we trust that photographs had not been staged?  All questions we must continue to ask ourselves dear readers, but never become too cynical to miss out on some truly brilliant craftsmanship.  




  • UNION DOCS: http://www.uniondocs.org/02-08-2014-reenactment-melissa-ragona/
  • INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY ASSOCIATION: http://www.documentary.org/feature/do-you-swear-re-enact-truth-dramatized-testimony-documentary-film
  • THE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED PIECE BY ERROL MORRIS: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/play-it-again-sam-re-enactments-part-one/?_r=0
  • THE NEW YORKER- article by RICHARD BRODY: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/just-say-no-to-reenactments-jinx-robert-durst
  • SCRIPT MAGAZINE: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/reenactments-documentary-films-authentic-truth-documentary