Fiction and Non Fiction: The great divide? (In Documentary: the margins of reality Ward, 2005) is an interesting look at the elements of documentary vs drama and what makes a documentary authentic.
The piece raises interesting issues about how reconstructed scenes of true events using actors can call into question the validity of a documentary. I had never really thought about this point before, having grown up watching many crime shows with reenactments I found them to be a natural part of re-telling a true story, I hadn’t considered the fact that since they are technically not a 100% true representation of the events they may cheapen a documentary’s authenticity.
One of the first documentary films to use highly stylised reenactment scenes was Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988). The Thin Blue Line (1988) tells the story of the death of a Dallas police officer and the man who was wrongly accused of his murder, who then spent years on death row as a result of this. The film is a mixture of interviews with the accused, the police officers who arrested him, witnesses who testified against him as well as the man who is largely thought to actually be behind the murder. These are interspersed with reenactments of the murder itself, which are shot in a highly cinematic style and accompanied by a haunting Philip Glass score; these elements certainly make certain parts of The Thin Blue Line (1988) feel more like a stylish fiction film piece rather than a documentary. The film was actually rejected from Best Documentary consideration at the Academy Awards because the critics deemed it a fiction film due to the reenactment scenes. It is hard to know where to draw the line in these cases. The Thin Blue Line (1988) is truly probably my favourite documentary and it is because of these haunting reenactment scenes and the beautiful music that accompanies them that this is so, but do these elements detract from the film and categorise it as a fiction work?
Of course when you ‘reenact’ scenes with actors you always run the risk of misrepresenting what happened, a person who was there might remember something differently to what actually happened – or flat out lie. It is a valid point to consider that reenactments present a certain level of dishonesty in a documentary however I believe a documentary is always presented on how the film maker understands the facts in any case. Unless a film maker was actually at the scene of what they were documenting most of the time they are using second hand information regardless of whether they use reenactments or not.
Another issue raised in the reading is that of feature films that are ‘based on true events’. This type of film uses actors to tell a true story. It is difficult to distinguish just how this is different from using reenactments, as essentially making a film based on true events using actors is the same sort of thing as using reenactments; only it takes up the whole film instead of just segments of it. However there is always the case that a film may have the tag line ‘based on true events’ and take complete liberties with these events. For example the Aussie slasher film Wolf Creek (2005) claims to be based on true events – yet it takes immense liberties with these events to create tension in its run. The events the film claimed to be based upon were the two infamous cases of Ivan Milat (the backpacker murderer) and the disappearance of Peter Falconio; however what transpires in the film is completely different to what happened during these cases. There are only vague similarities between what happened in real life and what occurs in the film. Films that claim to be ‘based’ on a true story basically take a license to manipulate the story how they wish as they have only claimed to be based upon the story – so often films (Wolf Creek (2005) being a prime example) can cite famous cases and gather attention for their film and then write whatever they want.
This is a clear distinction from the use of reenactments in a documentary film as these reenactments work on the premise that they are trying to follow the true events as closely as possible.
Overall I think it can be a thin line (perhaps a thin blue line?) as to what can be considered an integral and authentic documentary, people have different opinions and overall it seems critics do not appreciate reenactment scenes, however personally I find they can enhance the movie going experience and if they strive to achieve the utmost accuracy I see no problem with the use of reenactments in documentaries. The Thin Blue Line (1988) is a masterpiece, and that is largely down to its interesting and new (at the time) style.
Ward, P 2005, Documentary: the margins of reality, Wallflower, London, pp. 31-48
The Thin Blue Line 1988, motion picture, American Playhouse, Channel 4, Third Floor Production, USA
Wolf Creek 2005, motion picture, The Australian Film Finance Corporation, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia