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Doc Edge 2010: Re-making reality

When we talk about “re-creating reality” in a documentary, most of us tend to think of a “dramatised reconstruction”, where actors are often chosen more for their resemblance to the real person they’re playing than their acting skill. But this seminar showed us that this conception is far too narrow.

(Imagine my initial bemusement when asked to play a violent serial rapist in the Kiwi TV programme Crimewatch a few years back – and my even greater consternation when, less than a week after the programme went to air, I heard that the crim in question had been caught!)

This session was introduced by Geraldine Peters of AUT, who gave us a brief history of various re-creational forms that were popular through the ages of cinema – how stop-motion animation was very common in the 1930s, for example, while in the 1940s re-creations became the fashion.

Annie Goldson then described how the following fad towards so-called “direct cinema” led to the belief that, with the help of new and evolving technology, filmmakers actually could get to a “true reality”. This led to an attitude of “anti-narration”, “anti-re-creation” – which she suggests (hopes?) we are beginning to put behind us now.

Her next point was that all documentary is a form of representation. When Orson Welles spoke on screen as himself, there was still a façade, or mask, that he chose to present to us, consciously or unconsciously – not necessarily the true Mr Welles that only his family and intimate friends might know. Annie also added that in just the same way, she herself was “playing” a version or aspect of ‘Annie Goldson’ as she spoke to us!

After describing herself, as evidenced by her work, as seemingly “obsessed with death, violent death – in hot climates – and trials”, Annie used segments of two of her films to illustrate different (and indeed novel) ways of dealing with the film-maker’s common need to “re-create” reality. With Punitive Damage, she used many of the real people themselves (rather than actors) to re-enact the original trial that had taken place some years earlier. It helped that the trial was kept largely secret, and had very few actual participants.

Annie followed this with a sequence from An Island Calling to demonstrate a style of reconstruction that involved simply showing the places where the original action (in this case, a murder) took place. This sequence begin with shots of a man walking (on the way to the murder site), but filmed from the knees down only – and with an enhanced rather than purely naturalistic soundtrack. But in showing the actual murder location devoid of both people and blood, and using a soundtrack carefully and effectively to convey the atmosphere, the sequence was more powerful than it might have been with actors used in a conventional reconstruction.

When Annie described how this methodology also meant she could avoid using (fake) blood and such, I was reminded of how the most frightening horror film ever at the time of its making was the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Audiences never actually saw the implement of the title, just heard it…

Kirsty MacDonald started her analysis by referring to the Peter Jackson/Costa Botes mockumentary Forgotten Silver, which was played on TV as if it were a conventional documentary, remarking how this form of presentation elicited considerable anger from members of the public who were completely taken in by the conceit. Asserting that “There is no such thing as an objective truth”, Kirsty then raised the concept of a “subjective truth”. She showed how animation could be used to avoid the common kind of voyeuristic separation of the audience from the subject of the film. There can indeed be “more truthful ways to show other kinds of truth”!

Having raised the question of ethics in doco-making generally, but in regard to the way Forgotten Silver was handled, Kirsty reminded us of the collaborative nature of film-making – especially in relation to how, in using re-creation and/or animation, we must nevertheless work closely with the subjects of our films in order to honour them.

Finally, perhaps to keep our film-making feet on the ground, Laurent Antonczak spoke of some of the practical difficulties in using these forms – for example, the potentially massive blow-out in time (and therefore cost) in post-production. He then showed us an example of how animation and other forms of CGI can in fact, if not carefully used, be both irrelevant and distracting to the representation of a film’s content…

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