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Errol Morris on Re-enactments in Documentary Film

Documentary making god-figure Errol Morris has a great op-blog in the NY Times on the use of re-creations and re-enactments. Writing about his film The Thin Blue Line:

It never occurred to me that someone might think that the re-enactments were not re-enactments at all, but honest-to-God verite footage shot while the crime was happening. It’s crazy for someone to think I had just happened to be out on that roadway, that night, with a 35-millimeter film crew and many, many cameras–cameras taking multiple angles, high angles from overhead, low angles at tire-level looking under the car, even angles inside the suspect vehicle. How could anyone think that? How could anyone believe that?

Well, people are dumb.

As was the Academy when it presented Mighty Times: The Children’s March with an Oscar in 2005 for best documentary short, despite the plentiful use of faked footage. Morris talked to doc. maker and professor Jon Else:

JON ELSE: To me, the bigger problem in “Mighty Times” is that they used footage from a lot of other cities and other years. There’s footage from the Watts riots two years later cut into scenes of Birmingham. There’s footage from the Little Rock school integration crisis five years before cut into Birmingham. The thing that tipped it for me was I was had worked in Birmingham in ’63. I was actually on S.C.C. staff – Student Coordinating Committee.

ERROL MORRIS: How old were you?

JON ELSE: I was a kid. I was like 19. I hadn’t actually worked on the Birmingham movement, but I had been through there the week after the church was bombed. I remember the guy at the Y.M.C.A. – the white Y.M.C.A. – we asked how to get to the 16th Street Baptist Church – and he said, “You mean that church that the niggers bombed?” I had been recruited to be an undercover guy. I was to go eat lunch at a restaurant owned by Lester Maddox in Atlanta. He had a mob of Klansman at his restaurant that beat up any black person who tried to eat there. For months, I went over to the Pickrick, his restaurant, with a buddy of mine, we were both on the S.C.C. staff. And over the door of the restaurant he had a sign “I refuse to serve Integrationists.” And after several months of doing this, I ended up going into court and testifying against him. The reason this matters, is that I’m watching “Mighty Times” [about the summer of 1963 in Montgomery] and up pops a shot of Lester Maddox in Atlanta, Ga., taken two years later, standing in the door of his restaurant saying “I refuse to integrate.” And that’s when I thought, “Jesus, I risked my life to testify against this guy, and they are putting him in a different city two years earlier.” There’s a real audio-visual record of what happened during those years in that part of the country. It’s fraud. It’s a double fraud. Both in the re-enactments and in the wholesale importing of other cities, other times. I’s’ like Monopoly money.

The comments, while sparse, are worth reading.

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