ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality

Trials, the law and courtroom dramas

The inherent drama of the trial, at least in its Anglo-American form, lends itself to both documentary and fictional approximations.

The Contemporary Tribunal Form

The trial’s special quality is its inherent narrative logic: that, while not compromising its authenticity, it follows a clear and causal structure commensurate with the classical beginning-middle-end narrative patterns. The trial, therefore, naturally probes the interface between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’. The performed tribunal is fascinating in the context of approximation because it remains so circumscribed by its original material, as writers traditionally tend to edit down their transcripts rather than exercise more distorting dramatic license. A common motivation for trial documentaries and dramas has been the publicising of in camera events; other forms of trial documentaries have included the hypothetical case, such as many ‘trials’ of Lee Harvey Oswald. Currently in vogue are longer-term observational series, such as 10e chambre or The Staircase and the recent spate of ‘crime documentaries’ such as the podcast Serial (2014) or Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx (2015). These are approximations on a textual level (for instance, the complex interweaving in The Staircase of layers of archive, interview and performances for the camera) and in terms of how they sit in dialectical contrast with what is known about the cases beyond the text - the original transcripts, news items, eye witness reports not included in the final versions.

Other references:

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (Andrew Jarecki, 2015), Serial (podcast, Sarah Koenig, 2014), The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004), Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011), Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Enquiry (Richard Norton-Taylor, 2003), 10e chambre—Instants d’audiences (Raymond Depardon, 2004), The Government Inspector (Peter Kosminsky, 2005), Sisters in Law (Kim Longinotto, 2005), State Legislature (Fred Wiseman, 2007).



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.


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