Stuart Swezey writes:
Documentaries have somehow become the indie movies of today. Whether starring waddling penguins or a waddling leftie with a microphone, documentaries now have the capability of hitting box office paydirt in a monotonous Hollywood era of sequels, and CGI animals that talk. Some heavy-hitters of documentary film were assembled to discuss a still-controversial trick of the trade – the “reenactment.” Reenactments work best when they are seen least – the whole idea is to use filmmaking wiles to illustrate what the director has no other visuals to put up on the screen.
The Academy (yes, the ones that give out the Oscars) put together a heavy lineup of documentary directors to tackle the topic. Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey of The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Inside Deep Throat fame; Ross McElwee, the painfully self-referential star of his own Sherman’s March; Stacy Perata, who seemed to morph effortlessly from skater to skateboard manufacturer to world-class documentary director with Dogtown and Riding Giants; to genius director Werner Herzog, who is currently blowing minds with Grizzly Man, about the self-appointed bear-defender who ends up a tasty morsel for a bad-ass Alaskan grizzly. The evening was loosely hosted by Penelope Spheeris, whose claim on this genre is still the punk rock doc Decline of Western of Civilization made some decades ago and Wayne’s World, which one member of the audience seemed to think actually was a documentary. (Herzog loves Anna Nicole, after the jump)
One of the panelists had a real axe to grind about an Oscar-winning documentary short about the civil rights era called Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Apparently the directors of Mighty Times manipulated the use of archival footage, shot their own footage to look like historical footage, and generally used whatever means they could to sex up their film without giving viewers any visual cues to what was “real” and what was “faked.” Director Judy Richardson, who comes out of the team that put together the Eyes on the Prize series, had strong feelings about making sure that young people who watch historical docs can be absolutely, positively sure that what they are seeing is “real.” The overall consensus seemed to be that faking and manipulating b-roll in the service of a good cause is really not that cool. But in general, using any means necessary to make a more visually compelling film was acceptable. Fenton termed it using “all the crayons in the crayon box” and the phrase seemed to stick.
Werner Herzog was truly eloquent in defense of a deeper poetic truth that documentaries can reveal. He admitted to a host of surprises, from being a fan of the Anna Nicole show to making up dreams to put in the dream sequences of his film Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Given that Herzog seems to be on top of his game with Grizzly Man, it was truly inspiring to hear him not afraid to go off about concepts like “ecstatic truth” like a latter-day Friedrich Nietzsche. Herzog made a big point that he does “enactments” instead of “re-enactments” for his films that gave some insight into how much “directing” of his non-actors goes into his docs.
Herzog pointed out the now trite observation that reality shows are not “real” – but what gives them their massive appeal, what separates them from scripted TV, and the cross-pollination between the serious world of docs and the trashy world of reality TV was not even examined. For example how the classic Hands On A Hard Body inspired countless endurance trials that “move story” on season after season of Survivor or how reality producers are often frustrated documentary directors trying to survive in the harsh Darwinian world of post-film school economics.
The overall message of the evening was “anything goes” but at the same time some unspecified standards were still agreed upon in terms of quality and appropriateness of reenactments. Since in the era of Photoshop and laptop filmmaking, seeing is no longer believing, it appears that Herzog’s “deeper truth” is perhaps the only measure of the valid use of the reenactment that one can came away with. And like the judge said about pornography, ya know it when ya see it .
– Stuart Swezey
(20 Questions with Stuart Swezey, “the Sears Roebuck of exotica,” at City Paper)