ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality


‘Approximations’ are inherently dialectical; new meanings are arrived at through the drawing together of conflicting, colliding elements. Unlike in a jigsaw, where individual bits are essentially meaningless abstractions until interlocked successfully with adjacent segments, the elements or strata of complex approximations are intelligible on their own, they don’t need each other to become logical. The ‘Approximations’ I’ve written about also resemble meandering journeys; their purpose or endpoint is not necessarily the one I set out to find. Outlined below, before getting to the resources relevant to each section, is one ‘resource’ that illustrates this: my recent writing on the pink suit Jackie Kennedy was wearing on 22 November 1963, the day her first husband, President John Kennedy, was assassinated.


Imaginative Representation and ‘9/11’

11’09”01 Ken Loach et al, 2002


In Ken Loach’s short film about the ‘other’ 9/11 – the military coup in Chile of 9/11 1973 – Pablo, its narrator, is played by Chilean singer, Vladimir Vega, a refugee who came from Chile to Britain in the late 1970s having spent years in prison. Vega, who died in 2013, also starred in Loach’s 1994 film Ladybird, Ladybird.

Mad Men titles Matthew Weiner, AMC, 2007


The monochrome man of the Mad Men titles hurtles towards the ground. Instead of hitting the ground, however (which did happen in one of the early mock-ups for the sequence), the titles end with this dapper but desperately out of control figure morphing effortlessly into a calm man on a sofa, a white cigarette between his fingers. The titles indirectly echo Richard Drew’s photo The Falling Man, of a figure jumping from the WTC on 11 Sept. 2001.

Man on Wire James Marsh, 2008


The twin paths of ‘9/11’ and Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center converge at the insertion of this archival photo of Petit (not visible) silhouetted against the murky sky with a plane flying overhead. James Marsh prevaricated over whether or not to use this image in Man on Wire, but decided to because the film is in part about reclaiming the towers from 9/11 as well as reiterating its immovability.

United 93 Paul Greengrass, 2006


In this concluding sequence of United 93 passengers and crew pile towards the cockpit like a possessed scrum. Intercut with the terrorists wrestling with the aircraft’s controls, the juxtaposition of images becomes increasingly frenetic, resembling a set piece in one of Greengrass’s two Bourne films. Finally the scrum rams the cockpit’s door with the meals trolley, but too late to prevent the plane from crashing.


History as incidental event

Mad Men Matthew Weiner, 2007

The day after JFK has been assassinated in Dallas, Roger Sterling (right) still has to host his daughter’s wedding. Life goes on, although many guests spend much of the time watching live TV coverage.


Archives of Record and Collage

Argo Ben Affleck, 2010


2010 Hollywood film about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the outlandish but true behind-the-scenes story of which was, for security reasons, hidden from the public for years.

It Felt Like a Kiss Adam Curtis, 2007


First screened as a performance in collaboration with theatre group PunchDrunk in July 2009 at the Manchester International Festival, this treads familiar Curtis terrain, exploring the origins of the 21st century divides and the ‘war on terror’ in post-war US consumerism and conservatism.

The Power of Nightmares Adam Curtis, 2004


Subtitled ‘The Rise of the Politics of Fear’, this BAFTA-winning series examines the role fear plays in contemporary politics by comparing the rise of the neo-conservative movement in the US with that of the radical Islamist movement.


A Crisis in Documentary Representation?

The Arbor Clio Barnard, 2010


A documentary about British playwright Andrea Dunbar, ‘The Arbor’ is notable for its use of different forms of re-enactment, especially the use of actors lip-synching to the words of recorded interviews.


Performative Mimicry


Equivalent Events


The Creative Treatment of Documentary


Not a Documentary

Le Quattro Volte Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010


This dialogue-less film about Calabrian village life follows in the tradition of Italian neorealism by using non-actors in loosely directed situations to build a picture of authentic everyday life.


Trials, the law and courtroom dramas

Into the Abyss Werner Herzog, 2011


Herzog’s interview-based profile of death row prisoner Michael Perry, executed on 1 July 2010. Perry, 28 years old at the time the film was made, had been convicted, alongside Jason Burkett, of the triple homicide ten years earlier (on 24 October 2001) of Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson. To his death he maintained his innocence.

The Staircase Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004


8-part documentary series charting the trial of Michael Peterson, convicted of the murder of his wife Kathleen on 9 December 2001. Peterson’s trial began 1 July 2003 and lasted until 10 October 2003, when the jury unanimously found him guilty. Lestrade amassed more than 650 hours of footage, shot over a 20-month filming period, and the series was broadcast in the US on the Sundance Channel, in April 2005. In the eyes of some, the series distorts, even contradicts, the courtroom proceedings.