When Documentaries Attack

Documentary Van.I recently borrowed producer David L. Wolper’s autobiography, “Producer,” from our local library (a tremendous resource for micro-moguls stretching their research budgets). In it, the award-winning producer of “Roots” and “Willy Wonka,” among other cultural touchstones, details how his production company essentially invented the “dramatic re-enactment” in their television documentaries of the 1950s. It’s interesting to consider that such scenes, now ubiquitous on cable and beyond, were once considered verboten by networks and journalists alike.

I’ve appeared in similar reenactments for the History Channel’s “Man, Moment and Machine” – my star turns included a Macedonian messenger who proved the exception to the “Don’t kill the messenger” rule, as well as a Desert Storm-era Iraqi soldier in the precious seconds before obliteration. Admittedly, I’m a fan of the form.

In the short-list of docs I’ve produced (with another in the hopper for the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, about sculptor Fletcher Benton), I’ve occasionally mulled the notion of shooting entire projects as “dramatic re-enactments.” It some cases it would be easier. A couple of years ago, on a gig predicated on Napa’s erstwhile food, wine and art center, Copia, we had to re-shoot 30 percent of the footage because the joint had a habit of laying-off the staff after we had just interviewed them, necessitating new interviews with their respective successors. Eventually, the cable channel that hired us also went under leaving us with a pile of utterly useless footage or, more specifically, a hard-drive full of worthless one and zeroes seeing as celluloid fell into the digital divide sometime in the last century.

In the Copia case, my dramatic re-enactment would depict the behind-the-scenes frustration (read: Lorne Greene in his classic death pose) experienced by my collaborator Raymond Scott Daigle whenever I mentioned the prospect of a re-shoot because another executive head had rolled. Our only salvatation was the copious amounts of wine with which we were plied throughout the ordeal. In fact, our audio tracks generally began with the sound of a cork popping followed by a doleful publicist introducing us to the latest hire who was invariably gone the following week. I exaggerate – but only mildly. Sometimes we had beer.

Of course, this interpretation would technically be a “docudrama” (the fact that the term doesn’t raise the hackles of my laptop’s spell-check suggests the breadth of its acceptance). Such an approach would permit us to sidestep the foibles of our colleagues as uncovered in a disturbing report recently published by the Center for Social Media at American University, titled “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.”

In the report, Patricia Aufderheide, Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandra reveal a film genre blighted by ethical issues (find me one that isn’t). From snapping bunny legs to aid a flailing predator’s on-camera kill to using photos purchased from a flea market in lieu of actual archival material. Both these examples are explored in an interview with Aufderheide by Bob Garfield on the syndicated radio program “On the Media”: “Filmmakers also face pressure to inflate drama or character conflict and to create drama where no natural drama exists,” reads a portion of the report. “They may be encouraged to alter the story to pump up the excitement, the conflict, or the danger.”

I trust, Sonoma, when you’re ready for your close-up, no such embellishment will be necessary. If it is, we can just pop a few corks and claim “in vino veritas” whilst attempting to drown the messenger. The cameras are thirsty.

Any thoughts?

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