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Distressing History: Documentary as a Re-creational Vehicle

By IDA Editorial Staff

By Mark Samels

Clearly something was wrong with the scene we were watching. It wasn't the writing,  the camerawork or the editing. No, the problem was elsewhere. "It's the costumes," groaned the filmmaker, head in her hands. They were supposed to look worn and dirty, like they belonged in colonial America. The ones on screen were pristine. "We had to borrow them from a museum," she sighed. "And they wouldn't let us distress them."

In the world of documentary filmmaking, a lot has changed over the past 25 years, and nowhere is change more apparent than in the genre of history. Not long ago, the filmmaker groaning in the editing room had all the skills needed to be successful. She had a discerning eye for stories, knew how to master a subject through research, had perfected techniques for interviewing experts and witnesses alike, and could locate within major photographic and motion picture archives the images and sound that made a film stand out. Most importantly, she could shape all the facts and footage into a compelling, insightful story. No one said anything about wardrobe malfunction.

For the past decade or so, she and many others making history documentaries have been caught in a sea change. There are multiple causes--digital technology and the expansion of television outlets for historical docs come to mind--but at the center is the recent proliferation of dramatic re-creations. Every year, producers are asked to mount more elaborate reenactments than before--if only to keep up with others in the field. It's like an arms race waged with props and makeup. "You've got a boat full of pirates with swords and cannons? Well, we've got the entire Spanish Armada sailing up the English Channel. Top that."

How did it come to this? For starters, it has always been this way, since the very beginning of documentaries. When Nanook set off on the Arctic ice to hunt seals, he was actually reenacting scenes that Robert Flaherty had observed long beforehand. Those iconic images of soldiers rushing out of the trenches in World War I toward an almost certain death? Staged for the cameras after the shooting had stopped. Documentary luminaries Pare Lorentz and Leni Riefenstahl meticulously composed scenes before turning on their camera. They were operating under a license given them by the father of documentary himself, John Grierson, who defined the form as "the creative treatment of actuality."

Still, the norm for decades was that historical documentaries relied almost exclusively on unstaged archival footage. Whole series like the World War II saga Victory at Sea were built from motion picture footage taken at the time. With the release of the PBS blockbuster The Civil War in 1990, photographs gained a new prominence. A single photo now offered the possibility of multiple images--pans, tilts, close-ups of details. For those interested in variety, shots of ominous clouds or a candle burning in the window would do.

Then, one day--a day to celebrate or mourn, depending on your documentary politics--a shot of a hand holding a gun appeared. Next, boot tips and running legs. A glancing shot of the back of a head. Not the face, not yet. The face, many of us thought, crossed a line, into the land of dramatized expression and emotion. The land of fiction. Who really wanted to see Lincoln's face when he delivered the Gettysburg Address? No one in his right mind. 

Audiences didn't see it that way. They seemed to like stories filled with characters from history wearing waistcoats and powdered wigs. Sometimes these full-frontal dramatic re-enactments came with dialogue, sometimes without. Those without words forced actors into the realm of pantomime, relying upon the raised eyebrows and overwrought scowls last seen in the silent film era. Those who chose to use words often borrowed them from historical sources; the more adventurous simply made them up.

So back to our filmmaker with the overly clean costumes. Why did she buy into all this? Why didn't she stick to her guns and keep the onscreen pictures...well, more real?

Because only a tiny fraction of history is documented, that's why. Major events and the lives of the rich and powerful (presidents, generals, captains of industry, famous artists) were typically documented--first by painting and then by photography, the most realistic medium ever known. For these mighty few, there was at least a visual starting point for turning their stories into films.

But what about those who weren't caught in history's spotlight? Nearly all of us live outside that beam, in the shadows of history. For us, there are no headlines or newsreels or photographs in the National Archives. Yet it is those stories that have been central to a shift in history scholarship that preceded, and in many ways caused, the changes in historical documentaries. Some historians (and filmmakers) still turn to classic subjects like wars and great leaders--will the Lincoln well ever run dry?--but many others have turned to lesser-known stories from the past: stories that feature different racial, ethnic and gender perspectives on history, and that reveal the remarkable power and importance of ordinary lives. For a complete picture of the past, we need those stories.

That's where dramatic re-creations come in. They fill in the blank spaces in the historical record: the little-known event that now can be seen as a turning point; the underappreciated colleague to a famous pioneer; the intimate moment in any life, so often hidden from history, that tells us everything about what it meant to be human--then and now.

Critics complain, not without reason, that re-creations hopelessly mix facts with imagination and interpretation. But formal purity is not an end in itself. More important, many of us believe, is conjuring stories effectively, bringing history to life with every reputable tool at our disposal. It is a kind of civic obligation. Not long before his death, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it this way: "History is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disorientated and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future."

Which is why our poor filmmaker, despite her understandable dilemma, should do her best to master the craft of working with actors and props and grip trucks and smoke machines and, yes, distressing costumes. She should do so because, no less than poring over old photos in a dusty archive, or filming a seal hunt in the frozen north, she will still be in the service of an admirable and magical goal: bringing to life something that informs and comforts and inspires us. Call it history.


Mark Samels is executive producer of American Experience (, the longest running and most watched history series on television. He also attended the very first meeting of the IDA, which has thrived way beyond his expectations.