Reenactments in Documentary Cinema

When someone wants to portray a story in documentary cinema, they do a reenactment. Reenactments are exactly what the word says- people will act out a scene; show real events that have happened. They are common, and provide wonderful imagery to the viewer. Sometimes they are done very well and accurately, and sometimes they are not.

In one way, I see reenactments as a great way to portray a scenario. People assume that documentary footage should come from the present, that the director should be hands-off. But a story in the past has to be reenacted. For example, it makes sense to reenact Egyptian culture, and it helps me understand it more.

I feel like reenactments can take away from a story, though. It can be unnecessary, and could make the audience lazy. Then reenactments could be done dramatically or make me believe that the story was fake overall.

It was strange, this week I was trying to research more on the matter, more so criticisms towards it. I was coming up blank- other than people complaining about live action civil war reenactments. Am I the only one that seems to see this as an issue?

I do know that documentaries were not always like this. For a long time, the rules of the documentary form were set in stone: archival footage, talking heads, voice-over narration. Thin Blue Line in 1988 broke the mold by creating vivid reenactments of the crime that had occurred. This film was groundbreaking, as they actually got someone to confess the crime of a murder. I actually loved it, but it didn’t win any awards. Critics didn’t like that a documentary had reenactments. It was frustrating that it didn’t get high acclaim, but I could understand why they look so negatively at reenactments. It’s easy to understand the resistance to reenactment, since, well, so many of them are so terrible.

And they continued to spit out horrible reenactments, too! Take Psychic Investigators for example- the story about how psychics solved an impossible case. This series has interviews from cops, civilians, and the psychic individuals. But what I found strange was that these people were not only able to recall these events, but act them out- and act them out well. You might as well plaster “This is fake” all over it, because those “real people” were actors.

Take the opposite side of that, a great reenactment. There is a movie with actor Jack Black called Bernie, a cheery man in a town in which everyone loved him. This film was a movie instead of a documentary, but it reenacted Bernie’s life. They even got actors to pretend to be the citizens of the town and talk to the camera as it was a documentary. That was fake, yes, but yet it was done so well. All the names were correct, and the story was accurate (I even Googled it!). I loved this film, and making it more like a movie was the best approach for such a unique story. I will always consider it a documentary.

I think it depends on the genre, A lot of crime shows involve stories with horribly done reenactments. This is because they are pumping them out all the time, and not putting effort into the stories. I think it would be easier for the director to leave more room for the audience to use their imagination! I believe the problem now is that people don’t like to imagine anymore. Just like with reading, it’s just not as popular. Watching is easier, but that doesn’t mean you have to ruin a good story with sad reenactments. Of course, this is only my opinion, though.


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