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Do You Swear to Re-Enact the Truth? Dramatized Testimony in Documentary Film

By Joseph Jon Lanthier

From Alex Gibney's <em>Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer</em>, a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


The use of re-enactment in documentary is as old as the form itself, yet it remains persistently controversial, and there is nothing else that better illustrates the ontological knottiness of our relationship with the media. To label a film a "documentary" is in one sense to burden it with the responsibility of veracity. The movie in question is graced with an unsubtle aura of verisimilitude, and what we see and hear is taken to be, if not quite truth, then in truth's tortuous pursuit. The documentarian's challenge is thus not only one of communicating actuality through images and sound, but of anticipating an audience that will assume authenticity, unless told otherwise.

This, too, is why re-enactments and their critical reception have always subtly patrolled the nebulous border between documentary and fiction film, although it's not often clear when that divide has been traversed. Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) proved that lightly staged material both carries an eerie realism and can be defended as "doctored life" for the sake of posterity. But the Oscar-winning short Mighty Times: The Children's March (2005), directed by Robert Houston and Bobby Hudson, attracted loud disapproval for using re-created scenarios that were presented without disclaimer and digitally altered to look more archival. Unlike the specks of craftsmanship that constitute white lies inherent to the cinematic craft--lighting, invisible post-production image altering, etc.--the deliberate dramatization of a previous event straddles the razor's edge between art and fraud.

Discussing the use of re-enactments in an April 2008 article in The New York Times, director Errol Morris rebukes The Children's March, then goes on to surmise, "The difficulty with images is not suspending disbelief but rather the opposite--suspending our natural tendency to believe in their veracity. The seeing-is-believing principle." (Not coincidentally, Morris' use of dramatization in the 1988 film The Thin Blue Line is less meant to simulate realism than to cultivate doubt towards a criminal investigation that wrongly convicted a man of murder.) Implicit in this quote is that our tendency to question what we perceive is influenced by very specific cues--intrusions of artifice--that are often eschewed by documentary traditions.

One tradition in particular that illustrates the complex naivety of perception is the use of interviews. The human mind naturally approaches hearsay with skepticism, but the "neutral zone" in which talking heads are often placed can have a furtively legitimizing effect. If the director deems a testimony worthy of attention and film stock, why shouldn't we take it seriously? There is, too, something to be said for the ostensibly truth-telling gaze of cinema--the idea that the camera cannot be lied to. (One is reminded of Jean-Luc Godard's assertion that film is "truth at 24 frames per second"). We're left, then, to determine integrity from body language and visual context, the latter of which is used to flesh out character and, occasionally, invite doubt.

Testimonial re-enactment, which has become more prevalent in film since the advent of verbatim theater (performance from word-for-word transcripts of interviews), can be best understood as an aesthetic conversation between a documentarian and an interviewee. Directors have employed this tactic for a number of different reasons in recent years--investigative necessity and lyrical intent among them--but most salient is the notion that filtering genuine testimony through artifice arrives at a truth that would be otherwise inaccessible. Indeed, in many cases, re-enacted interviews have shown that truth is represented most indelibly through the juxtaposition of multiple falsehoods and interpretations.

As Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) often focuses on delicate disgrace and downfall, it's somewhat surprising that his work doesn't contain more re-enacted testimonies. By wrenching often shockingly bald confessions from fallen public figures, Gibney's work allows us to meaningfully inhabit his subjects' perspectives-the re-creating of history occurs in our own minds as we watch. For his film Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), however, Gibney hired an actress to perform an integral interview from one of Spitzer's most-visited call girls, "Angelina." This choice was partly made, the filmmaker explains, to preserve the female's identity on her request, but it was also quite piquantly an attempt to uphold an aesthetic loyalty toward her.

"I recorded two very long audiotape interviews with her," says Gibney. "The first thing we did was put them through a kind of a voicebox, alter them electronically, and then cut them into the film. It was terrible. Every time it came on...she sounded like a monster, or some creepy character from a mob movie. And that was exactly who she wasn't. She was very forthright, very proud, in a way, of what she did--a very funny, intelligent, charming character." And Wrenn Schmidt's performance, Gibney insists, "convey[s] in a more truthful way the character of this person."

This speaks to a common issue in documentary production--namely, that what occurs when the cameras are rolling, and then what comprises usable footage, does not necessarily align with a subject's essence. Manipulation can paradoxically prod us closer to that essence, even if the means are deceptive.

In keeping with Gibney's confidentiality agreement, Schmidt never heard the original tapes, but she was closely coached to mimic them. And Gibney notes the curious relationship between his directorial decision and the nature of the interviewee's relevance to Spitzer: "There's something about this kind of escort service that involves acting. It's like the clients walk into an erotic film. The bookers will tell the women what the clients are interested miraculously you show up for your ‘date,' and your escort is chatting with you about Carmen. Well, that's a fiction."

This odd-performance-out in Client 9 didn't provoke much haranguing, though its seamlessness certainly toys with the viewer's expectations, not insignificantly because we aren't alerted to the fact that "Angelina" is fake until halfway through the film, after we've safely accepted her as genuine. "In the cutting room, that was the most controversial decision we made," Gibney observes. "Partially for structural reasons, it was easier to do it this way--but...this whole film is structured as a series of misdirections. You think you know something, and then you find out that it's not that way at all. So there are all sorts of ways in which your expectations are upended. This actress seemed another way to do that."

Gibney adds that while the technique is an unorthodox one, and certainly not appropriate for all or any documentaries, he finds it strange that his representation of "Angelina" should be questioned any more than that of other anonymous talking heads. "It's like a source in a newspaper that isn't named, or the classic news doc trope where you shoot someone in front of a light and their face goes into shadow, and you then metallically alter their voice. In both cases, there's no guarantee that the person is telling you the truth. There's only the trust you have in the journalist or the filmmaker."        

In some respects, this trust extends beyond the individual filmmaker to include prevalent conventions that have become synonymous with documentary itself. Are we less likely to doubt testimony that has been rendered inhuman by the journalistic chicanery noted above? Such tactics arguably shepherd the audience into belief by implying the intensity of the interviewee's authenticity--an authenticity so potentially nocuous that it must be imparted through smoke and mirrors. Re-enacted testimony challenges the assumptive faith we put in talking heads, especially anonymized ones.

Intriguingly, testimonial re-enactments can be used for the direct inverse of Gibney's intentions as well--to expose identity rather than shield it, and to revise character essence rather than studiously duplicate it. Director Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith, Outrage), whose films are fascinated with the unacknowledged surrealism that surrounds and closes in on us without warning, ventured into the investigative doc genre with This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), an examination of the Motion Picture Association of America's curious history, covert membership and bemusing modus operandi. Dick recorded conversations with ratings board chair Joan Graves regarding the NC-17 assigned to his film, and then executed a re-edit that included these phone chats. In the released cut, a sketchily animated Graves appears in a split-screen with Dick, her sober voice read from a script by an actress.

"The first time she was OK with the conversation being recorded," Dick says. "The second or third time she wasn' I took notes. But since this was the only way I could get an actual interaction [with a ratings board member], I thought it was pretty important to the film."

Regardless, the representation is softly polemical--as is, of course, the MPAA itself. A lower-third caption discloses the fact that what we're hearing is not Joan Graves, but we'd like to believe that the supercilious, crone-like manner is real. This perception, after all, matches the comically bloated influence the ratings board holds over the motion picture industry, and the arbitrary nature with which that power is exercised. In this instance, the aesthetic obligation was not to the humanity of Dick's interviewee but to his thesis.

"Even though [Graves' portrayal is] very impish, the phone conversation itself was pretty surreal and absurd," Dick notes. "I think it was an appropriate way to communicate the absurdity of this ratings board--particularly the way that they interact with filmmakers. The MPAA makes no effort at all to be open about their process." He continues: "There's something very comical about a secret ratings board trying to control what Americans, and especially ‘American children,' try to see. And so that was very much in the vein of the absurdity of this ratings film."

What's notably similar about the approaches of the above directors is how they invent a layer of commentary through which we engage with the words of their talking head. The representations of "Angelina" and Joan Graves are a kind of portraiture that guides us through the information they possess. "Angelina" cannot be dismissed as an average prostitute; Joan Graves' detachment is far more complex than one would expect from an individual who helps determine the parameters of social decency. These conclusions debatably distance us from the interviewees on the screen, but they drive us deeper into the broader reality that each documentary is exploring.

The paradox of establishing distance in order to penetrate is central to Clio Barnard's debut feature, The Arbor (2010). A wholly unique documentary experience, the film shuttles us through the life and work of British playwright Andrea Dunbar by interspersing archival footage and street performances of Dunbar's work amidst artfully re-enacted testimonials from friends and family members. These re-enactments are lip-synched to genuine audio interviews and photographed in meticulously staged environments--most often impoverished apartments lit with despondent blues and grays--that both enrich our contextual understanding of Dunbar's background and pay homage to her work in theater. Indeed, judging from the anecdotes included, all of which are mouthed to the audience by actors who hauntingly and relentlessly break the fourth wall, it seems as though Dunbar's day-to-day existence was rife with the exaggerated tragedies of the stage.

"The intention with the lip-synching was really there right from the beginning," claims Barnard, who had previously used the technique in an earlier documentary short. "So when I went up and starting interviewing people, I didn't bring a camera. A camera changes things. An audio recorder probably changes things, too, but not quite in the same way. I think I would have gathered a different kind of material had I taken a camera, and I don't think it would have been as intimate."

Barnard notes that, as with Gibney's "Angelina," the lip-synching allowed her to explore each character's background-and simultaneously let the audience emotionally "witness" the interviews--in a way that talking-head footage wouldn't have. "In The Arbor, I wanted to tell you something about each person through [his or her] environment," she says. "[The shots were] hugely informed by the interviews. I storyboarded the entire film to the soundtrack, so I had to do quite accurate timings." She describes one memorably heartbreaking moment where Lorraine, Dunbar's daughter, while criticizing Andrea's parenting, admitted her own shortcomings as a mother. "It was a real moment of humility. So that shot...the decision was to make her quite small and lonely in the frame and have the camera right outside her in the room, so you get a sense of the emotional impact of that moment."

The intimacy achieved is often harrowing, not only due to the described events--some of which dote upon the lingering pain of abuse and neglect--but because the re-enactments confront us with the language used in a manner that talking heads cannot. "The actors had to work incredibly hard to learn every breath and every ‘um' and every ‘ur' and every flubbed line with real precision," Barnard points out. "It gives the words a weight they wouldn't otherwise have." And in visually detaching the interviews from their speakers-the mouth movements are occasionally ever-so-slightly out of sync with the audio-Barnard arguably grants them a numinous power. It's as though we're hearing the murmurs of spirits though a medium. "I hope part of what [the lip-synching] does is make you listen in a different way," she furthers explains. "I think my job was to listen. Even in a conventional talking-head documentary, the words that end up in it are really important. But you might not be reminded of that because you're not thinking about what didn't make it into the cut. With this, I hope you think about that."

This brings up yet another contradiction: Despite the poetic cadence of The Arbor, the film's unprecedented approach blatantly reminds us of its superficiality. The methodology behind Barnard's directorial voice, and what it brings to Dunbar's story, is almost as vulnerably exposed as the sordid details of the playwright's brief life. "There's always going to be a gap between reality and representation, and it's useful to be reminded of that," says Barnard. "There's also the idea that, within documentary, there are always subjects--and those subjects are always ‘performing.' Anybody who's interviewed will present [him- or herself] in a particular way...the layers of performance are quite complex.  And I suppose I see the lip-synching as a reminder of that."

This raises a definitive question about the use of all re-enactment in documentary: Are dramatizations perhaps so deceptively lucid, so believable, because of our own propensity for fictionalizing existence? The most pervasive form of storytelling is, of course, memory--a concept Barnard ponders at length in The Arbor. "It's important to acknowledge that the truth is quite slippery," she philosophizes. "You need to question what you're looking at. I think it's easy to be sucked into something and stop questioning." While she's referring to film, one can't overlook how appropriately this applies to life.


Joseph Lon Lanthier is a cultural critic currently based in Chicago.