The following post is by Jonathan Kahana, author of Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary
In his recent review of Man on Wire, the documentary about the French tightrope walker who crossed between the World Trade Center towers, New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott praises the film’s “unobtrusive” re-enactments, by which he means, I suppose, that the film’s restaging of events for which no actuality footage exists don’t get in the way of something integral to the film’s structure and flow or the viewer’s experience. To put this the other way round: what is it about documentary film that would be interrupted by re-enactment?
This is a question that I do not address directly in Intelligence Work, even though the age-old question for documentary film scholars and critics – what is a documentary? – is posed throughout the book. A major artistic and pedagogical device in documentary for most of its history, re-enactment got a bad name in the 1960s, with the rise of the cinéma vérité technique that, for better or worse, has come to be identified as the “most” documentary of styles. Any sense that the “social actors,” as some have called documentary’s dramatis personae, are performing, or that their performances are organized and rehearsed for the camera became anathema to some documentarians in the 1960s. The prejudice against what was, for decades, a perfectly acceptable method for representing the past and the present has stuck. (If you need a reminder that even observational documentary relies on acting for its power, watch Cindy Yu Shui’s eloquent gestures and facial expressions in Yung Chang’s recent Up The Yangtze, which is now in theatres, a tremendous non-professional performance which was nonetheless the result of direction from the – what’s the term? – director.)
Before I had even put Intelligence Work to bed, it became clear to me that a.) you can’t fit everything into a single book, and b.) the things you leave out of the book are probably not going to let you forget them. It didn’t help that everywhere I looked, I was seeing re-enactment: network and cable television, theatrical feature documentaries, art galleries and museums. So out of a mixture of guilt, fascination, and a desire to re-do the past, I turned to the history of documentary re-enactment. (As it turns out, these are precisely the reasons that filmmakers have employed re-enactment: see, for instance, the early films of Italian neo-realism, or the re-enactments in Guy Maddin’s brilliant new documentary My Winnipeg, where Maddin re-stages his childhood home with actors playing his mother and siblings, engaging in therapeutic reconstructions of formative struggles over the orientation of the hallway rug and other traumas. For the sake of continuity, I have to mention, since I began these blog posts by talking about documentary and the amenities of commercial air travel, this surprising development in documentary distribution: this summer, passengers on Air Canada can watch My Winnipeg on the back of the headrest in front of them, which is where I saw the film for the second time.) A series of conference papers and panels at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and Visible Evidence conferences have come out of this work; a dossier of this work, which I am assembling for an upcoming issue of Framework, is on the way.
For me, one of the appeals of this topic is that it allows me to return to the films of Errol Morris, which get short shrift in Intelligence Work. (See excuse a., above.) As is the case in many of Morris’s re-enactments, this would be a “return” to something that didn’t exactly happen in the first place: The Thin Blue Line is one of the reasons I became interested in the study of documentary film, but it is a film about which I have probably not written more than ten words for publication. And there is a startling lack of scholarly writing about Morris. Although one can find Morris’s influence everywhere in documentary, fiction film, and advertising today, his work still has the power to obtrude. The criticism heaped on Morris’s recent Standard Operating Procedure for its use of cinematographic, dramatic, and aural techniques more common in mainstream film and television than in the Iraq war documentary cycle is a kind of tribute, one might say, to this tendency. One of my colleagues, referring to Manohla Dargis’s screed against the film in the Times, astutely diagnosed this approach as “protecting Team Hollywood”: that is, drawing a line in the sand between the spectacle and artistry of entertainment cinema and the socially-responsible – read: artless – efforts of documentarians. I tend to side with Morris, who asked me rhetorically after the Washington, DC premiere of S.O.P. “why should documentaries look like shit?”
But in addition to looking and sounding good – not usually something that film critics object to in a movie – the other reason that Morris’s film left so many critics cold, I suspect, is that it bucks the trend in the Iraq war documentary, which is to claim that documentary can (or should) uncover a truth, one that can be discovered intact beneath layers of official perfidy. One of the reasons I prefer S.O.P. to well-meaning and well-researched documentary films like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, Robert Greenwald’s muckracking video broadsides, or even the baroquely conspiratorial British television epic The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (without American distribution, but free and worth watching at the Internet Archive and elsewhere) is that S.O.P. doesn’t claim to explain or, really, even to understand Why We Are In Iraq, an understanding that many other current films about the war presume can be gained if you just talk to the right insiders. Otherwise, these films imply, god help you make sense of the political.
Although Morris is clearly concerned with the big questions (as he has emphasized in his writing and speaking about the film and the war), it’s their iteration on the small human scale that makes the film so compelling, as well as their movement from one topic to another: from the question of why someone would pose for a photograph with a dead prisoner to those of why people smile and give the thumbs-up in photos, and how does a digital camera work, anyway? This aleatory, digressive, essayistic movement of thought is what makes documentary an artform, and different in the first and last place (as the documentary pioneer John Grierson never tired of pointing out) from newsreels, travelogues, instructional films, and other forms of informational media. Morris’s films are among the best contemporary examples of the documentary prerogative of curiosity, a disposition that is composed in equal parts of suspicion and wonder. I borrow the idea of documentary curiosity from Oliver Gaycken, who is, as we speak, using it to talk about the interest that André Bazin had in the science films of Jean Painlevé. (Earlier this week, Gaycken was part of a panel about documentary cinephilia organized by Joshua Malitsky at this summer’s edition of Visible Evidence.) But it is no less useful for describing what is of interest in documentary today, even – or especially – when it borders on fiction, as it cannot help but do when it deals with the most basic and profound mysteries of life.