ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality

A Crisis in Documentary Representation?

The return of re-enactment as a prominent feature of documentary is not so much a ‘crisis’ in nonfiction film as a re-awakening of much earlier interests and techniques.

Documentary Re-enactment

Re-enactment in some form has always been part of documentary, although not always a warmly embraced one, and it has of late made something of a comeback. But whereas technology compelled Robert Flaherty or Humphrey Jennings to reconstruct events, lives and dialogue, with infinitely superior equipment and technology at their disposal, contemporary documentary filmmakers who use re-enactment do so out of choice. Re-enactments are ways of revisiting, revising or reconstituting past events; the term ‘re-enactment’, however, remains rather nebulously wide-ranging, indicating a variety of reconstructed events. For example, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010), about British playwright Andrea Dunbar (who died aged 29 in 2000) cuts between the conventional (in documentary terms) use of archival footage of her (taken from past television programmes such as a BBC Arena documentary), extracts from Alan Clarke’s cinema adaptation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and two different and more radical kinds of re-enactment: actors lip-synching to Barnard’s audio interviews with members of the playwright’s family or friends and dramatized extracts from her play The Arbor, acted out on the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford on which it’s set and where Dunbar lived. What makes The Arbor especially moving is that, whilst it frequently functions like a documentary (for instance grouping interviews, play scenes, and archive around a common theme) and thereby in large part offers a critique of documentary as a form, it moves well beyond such reflexiveness, using its kaleidoscopic structure to proffer a complex reassessment of Dunbar and her writing – to revisit the past, stage the links to the present and, most uncomfortably of all, to expose the prophetic parallels between Dunbar’s life and what she wrote in her plays and the tragic life of her eldest daughter, Lorraine.


The Battle of Orgreave (Jeremy Deller, 2001), Ghosts, Battle for Haditha (Broomfield, 2006, 2007); Deep Water (Osmond, Rothwell, 2006), 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2010); The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010); Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2011).



Stella Bruzzi FBA

Stella Bruzzi

Stella Bruzzi is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013. She was Head of Department 2006–2008 and Chair of the Faculty of Arts at Warwick 2008–2011. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children.


blog comments powered by Disqus