The popularisation of reenactment can easily be traced back to 1988, when Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line first wowed audiences and critics. The film revisited a murder case from 1976, in which Randall Adams was wrongfully convicted of killing police officer Robert W Wood. Instead of going down a more typical point A-to-point B approach, Morris utilised actors to essentially restage the action at certain points in the real-life narrative, including the muder scene itself were Adams was supposed to have shot Wood from his car on a roadside. Through this, Morris not only lent a clarity otherwise unavailable to particular details of what happened that fateful night, but also allowed himself to delve deeper into the horrific event. It was his own personal brand of time travel. Of course, there were detractors; this was not only a gimmick, but insulting to those affected by the murder. And what was a director, whose previous work had included the critically acclaimed Gates of Heaven doing by making a half-documentary, half-narrative picture? If anything, confusion – or rather, the inability to differentiate a fad from a valid new storytelling form – was paramount in gestating the wave of negativity towards it. In failing to understand the beast, the shock of the new got the better of even the movie’s own marketing, which promoted it as ‘nonfiction’ rather than ‘documentary’. This resulted in it being disqualified from that year’s Academy Awards. Famous critic Gene Siskel named it the seventh best film of 1988 – but clearly, such avid responses like Siskel’s wouldn’t matter if we couldn’t give it a label.
In the many years that have passed since then, The Thin Blue Line has crept upward in esteem, and is regularly regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time by many. And true praise comes in the form of imitation; throughout the subsequent nineties, TV programmes followed suit with Thin Blue Line-esque reenactments, having been shown a way to turn otherwise dull crime narratives spoken by a presenter into high-octane small-screen movies, boosting ratings in the process. It’s now difficult to find not only real-life crime programmes, but any kind of TV documentary based on human narrative, without a ‘dramatic reconstruction’.
Cinema, however, has put it to the most use. Perhaps the most brilliant, and valid, use of reconstructed drama-as-fact in recent times is 2011’s Dreams of a Life; Joyce Vincent has been missing for a year, but no one thinks of checking her apartment where she has lain, slowly decomposing, since her death. Director Carol Morley takes the necessary step of filling in potential gaps in the talking head interviewees’ otherwise illuminating recollections of Joyce, by casting actress Zawe Ashton to give the missing Joyce a face and, most importantly, to give us an easier way to care about her. It’s difficult to imagine the movie being as successful in its aims without this incredible performance at its centre, even though it’s a fundamentally fictional one. And the line that Morris drew between fact and fiction has been blurred even further; Bernie, also released in 2011, saw Richard Linklater, a director well-versed in Americana and its minutiae, annihilate completely the distinction between reenactment and real-life. Also concerning a murder case in a small town, Bernie Tiede’s (Jack Black) strange experience in which he kills his millionairess companion is recounted via mingling actors, among them Matthew McConaughey, with some of the real-life townspeople. It’s a masterclass in throwing away the triviality of verisimilitude, reaching the highest point the form had ever seen since The Thin Blue Line. Or perhaps that accolade belongs to Sarah Polley’s stunning Stories We Tell, where the director revels in the fact that a deeply personal life story is never quite what it seems. Finally, the distinction between fact and fiction is a fundamentally problematic one, and as a result, perhaps one that should be fiddled with. Morris, upon being asked why he uses reenactments in his documentaries, likes to point out that, ‘reality is reenacted inside of our skulls… that’s how we know about the world. We take in evidence with our senses, and we try to figure out on the basis of what we learn, what we read, what we see, what’s out there’. Morris was even asked by one reporter how he had come to be at the scene of the crime in 1976 – such was the freshness of Morris’ technique.
And then we come to Beyond The Edge, the latest in a long line of dramadocs; featuring no talking heads and largely focusing on stock footage and reconstructed drama scenes, it takes a leaf out of the book Morris authored; accordingly, Beyond The Edge rises above its otherwise quotidian shackles and frequently becomes a thrilling piece of cinema. It’s one thing to simply talk about climbing Everest; it’s another to believe you’re actually climbing it yourself. There are some extraordinary sequences in which the peril of the story is heightened, even though we already know the historical outcome. Whether director Leanne Pooley realises it or not – it’s a stylistic touch we all take for granted these days – the very nature of her documentary is owed to the pioneering work of Morris. But the real impact his filmmaking had wasn’t on the movies; it was on the real world. Roughly a year after The Thin Blue Line hit movie screens, Adams was released from prison largely in thanks to the film’s impact, the illuminating way it told its story urging a new surge of support for proving his innocence. Would it have achieved this feat without its formally daring reenactments? That’s down to history to decide. Did Hillary and Norgay really reach Everest’s summit? History decides yes; it’s a simple truth that they did. But only with the storytelling found in Beyond The Edge, and spearheaded by The Thin Blue Line, are we able to realise that truth.