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Suspension of disbelief

March 13, 2013

The first time I saw a reenactment was a battle scene at Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg. I was five or six, and I remember it pretty fondly—the men in costumes charging up the hill toward the fort, smoke billowing out through the muzzles of old cannons and gradually a growing sea of bodies motionless on the ground.

I remember watching one of the “dead” guys very closely, semi-horrified, a bit confused. After a few moments, he moved. I was so glad he did because, in that instant, the spell was broken. It was no longer real. All of a sudden, he was just a guy in a costume, lying on the ground.

Now, I’m in Rhinebeck, NY shooting reenactments for the documentary that I’ve been editing and producing for two years. I know, I know, I know; two years is a long time to be working on the same project, and reenactments can ruin an otherwise great documentary. I will say that the decision to include them was not made lightly.

In a documentary, reenactments are when you get actors to replay what happened. It’s often done when there is no footage of a particular event. It’s challenging because you are recreating moments that the audience may accept as truth. They are often moments of passion or crime, and so the performances are hard to believe.

In those cases, they have the potential to drag the whole piece down into TV True Crime territory. Not that I mind those shows, but they are made very quickly and the reenactments often feel like a lazy solution to cover talking-head interviews.

That was a big thing in thinking about our reenactments—why are they there? Do they have a real purpose? Are they necessary? If they are only for mood, it’s a tougher sell for the audience and has the potential to feel extraneous.

In “The Thin Blue Line,” for example, reenactments are integral to the telling of the story. The film examines the story of Randall Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. By seeing the same events replayed in different ways, the film shines light on discrepancies and problems within the story, something that eventually reveals Adams’ innocence. There are a few times in the film when the reenactments get a bit overly dramatic and cheesy (the cop throwing the milkshake... eesh), but it’s impossible to imagine the film without them.