Reenactments in documentaries are always tricky.
For a medium devoted to “the truth”, how to reckon with introducing patently fictive elements to the mix?
Flee and Procession, both shortlisted for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, delve into this question, specifically what it means for their subjects to reenact their tragic pasts for the documentaries. They’re about — and chronicle — how the act of making a documentary can be a cathartic process for the subjects.
As previously explained, Flee provided its subject the opportunity to untangle the murkiness of his traumatic personal history by prompting him to tell his life story; this telling can help illuminate the previously-repressed parts of his chronology.
Procession serves a similar function for its subjects. Reenacting their stories for a camera/audience can have the effect of making their tragedies feel real, not only for the audience, but also for themselves. They turn their hazy memories into concrete objects — AKA, the documentaries themselves — which will hopefully cut through the self-doubt intrinsic to any sustained trauma (“Did this really happen to me? Am I making it up? Why can’t I remember?”).
Both documentaries could actually stand to be sequelized; how do the subjects respond to seeing their lives on screen, and to the fanfare surrounding the movies? What sort of impact does it have on them? It would be a continuation of the stories already started in the original documentaries.
Another Oscar shortlister, Summer of Soul, can serve as a template for this approach; we periodically watch the subjects watching their former selves in the documentary’s footage, to observe their modern-day reactions.