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What Are the Ethics Behind Documentary Recreations?

What Are the Ethics Behind Documentary Recreations?

Should documentaries bookend vérité with imitation? On the second of its inaugural three days, the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI)/A&E Films Feature Documentary Storytelling Workshop at the newly opened Made in NY Media Center by IFP turned its discerning eye to the issue of recreations in a form that presupposes a measured degree of honesty. Leading the roundtable discussion amongst participating filmmakers and industry members, producer Simon Chinn and TFI’s Director of Documentary Programming Ryan Harrington questioned the ethics behind artificial stagings as they relate to both the subject and audience.

Chinn spoke at length of his work on “The Imposter,” a gripping portrayal of a Frenchman who impersonates a kidnapped Texan and that frequently hinges upon recreations. “With this story, all possible outcomes exist. There was no clear journalistic resolution, no answer to whose story we ought to believe. So using this actor [Adam O’Brien] who was essentially Frédéric Bourdin’s doppelganger, we were able to build a dramatic visual world that plays with these ideas of truth,” said Chinn, who produced “Man on Wire,” which also relied on dramatic recreations.

But what happens when these reinterpretations of events become indistinguishable from raw footage? Sometimes, it can impress unintended ramifications on the viewing experience. Using the recent release “The Summit” as an example, TFI’s Ingrid Kopp found the seamless transitions between recreations and reality hazardous, to the point where she no longer knew what to trust, whereas A&E Films’ Molly Thompson felt it made the filmmaking all the more impressive. 

Perhaps the most talked about documentary of the year, “The Act of Killing” seems to exist in a class unto itself. By inviting the very subjects of the film to portray their past killings, Joshua Oppenheimer instigates a series of collaborative, wholly acknowledged reenactments that at once remove the ethical equation and intensify it. “He’s essentially offering them a noose to hang themselves with,” argued Chinn of the filmmaker. But aren’t Anwar and his cohorts more than willing?

A few of the filmmakers seem to side with the notion that recreations are fair game as long as you you make a point of consulting with the subjects. Requesting involvement and approval from documentary’s most essential participants should assuage any fears to be had about accountability. And yet, at least to some degree, the filmmaker is still beholden to the audience. 

The question of recreations in documentaries proves to be a fascinating, open-ended one, with a different case to be made for each new film in the canon. 

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