Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Filming scripted scenes from a historical figure’s life doesn’t make a doc. Stop.
While I welcome films that stretch the boundaries of what can be considered a documentary or not, there are certain kinds of projects that I feel are decidedly excluded from a non-fiction classification, even in its most liberal sense. Despite this, every year I encounter a small handful of these projects, which leads me to wonder why some filmmakers have such a weird perspective on what constitutes a documentary.
Speaking specifically, these projects are usually biographies – well-known or obscure figures, it doesn’t seem to make a difference – but, rather than take a more traditional route in presenting the subject’s history and background, perhaps through interviews with surviving family members, friends, or scholars, the filmmakers opt instead to film actors, usually in period garb, acting out scenes from the person’s life. I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned this crosses the line from documentary to fiction. Even if it’s based on a true story, it’s not strictly documenting anything.
Now, admittedly, I generally have a serious problem with re-enactments anyway, even if they are used sparingly in a more straightforward documentary project. Much could be said about the role of “truth” in documentary – I’m not so naive as to couch my criticism strictly on that concept – but my view is that attempting to tell the story of a person’s life entirely through a scripted, enacted form erects a layer of distance and interpretation to that telling that it can’t be understood as a documentary.
Beyond this question of designation, the other main issue I have had with these types of projects is that, frankly, they just aren’t very good. They usually feel and look awkward, like a community theatre production, and often betray a sense that the filmmaker just isn’t sure what a documentary is anyway. At the same time, even if I were to confront a well-acted and well-produced example, I still think my sentiments would remain unchanged – a performance is still a performance and does not a documentary make (noting of course that some fests, like CPH: DOX, might strongly disagree).