In recent decades, the dramatic re-enactment has become an essential tool in the arsenal of the documentary filmmaker. And with good reason: a well-staged re-enactment conveys information directly and visually, putting an event right in front of the viewer’s eyes.
Errol Morris’ dreamlike images of the mechanics of a police officer’s shooting in The Thin Blue Line (1988) – a milkshake flying through the air, an officer’s hand fumbling with a revolver, the flashing lights on the roof of a police cruiser – give that incident a chilling unreality, letting the viewer perceive the specifics of event as fluid and uncertain. It supports the film’s contention that the people discussing the incident – actual participants and witnesses – are telling contradictory stories.
Morris uses the technique again in his new film, Standard Operating Procedure, which will have its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs next Saturday. Robert Richardson’s gorgeous high-speed, high-contrast imagery illustrates the testimony of American soldiers as they recount their experiences at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Snarling guard dogs, bound detainees, droplets of blood splashing on a concrete floor – these fleeting details lend the voiceover a visceral impact it might not otherwise have. It also serves to keep the two-hour movie from turning into a parade of talking heads.
Sturla Gunnarsson’s Air India 182 – screening tonight at the Winter Garden as the festival’s Canadian Opening Film – also uses re-enactments, but not nearly as wisely or as well.
Fully half of Gunnarsson’s documentary about the 1985 bombing of the transatlantic flight by radical Sikhs, which killed 331 people and gave Canada a horrifying understanding of external terrorism, is made up of re-created footage in which actors literally re-enact the events being described by Gunnarsson’s interview subjects.
When a man talks about dropping his family off at the airport, we see the event; when someone else talks about a traveler pressing her hand against the glass separating the boarding area from the public terminal, we see that too. It isn’t necessary to the narrative; it’s simply the rote illustration of the action being described. After half an hour or so, I started wondering whether the projectionist was showing us the DVD with the commentary track switched on.
And it’s not enough that Gunnarsson’s re-enactments serve to double the length of his documentary; they’re also embarrassingly inept. He’s edged up the action with nervous, random zooms suggesting surveillance footage, with ominous music used to underscore the most banal activities, layering portent under every casual glance and gesture.
It’s Paul Greengrass’s strategy from United 93, except that Greengrass didn’t insult his audience by directing his actors to emote at pantomime level – especially the actors playing the conspirators. And Greengrass was working with more recent material, but he still made sure to avoid inaccuracies and anachronisms. Gunnarsson’s re-creation of 1985 is so sloppy that his actors are pushing modern baggage carts through a Pearson terminal that didn’t even exist at the time.
Errol Morris doesn’t try for realism; he doesn’t build a world in which a moment can be played back for us. Standard Operating Procedure gives us flashes of key elements – a boot, a shotgun, a camera – to give flesh to its subjects’ recollections, while still acknowledging that the truth is utterly unknowable from our perspective. The images don’t pretend to be “real” in any meaningful way; they’re tiny pieces of a larger, murkier picture.
Watching Air India 182, I had the sense that I was seeing two movies shoved rudely together in the editing room – one a sensitive and mournful documentary about the incident, and the other a lame docu-thriller that would barely pass muster on the CBC. Rather than serving the story, or helping us understand its many complicated facets, it reduces it to a movie of the week – a rendering of tragedy, rather than an illumination. And that serves no one – not the victims, not the audience and not the truth.