In the 10 years since the inception of the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX), Scandinavia’s major documentary festival, nonfiction filmmaking has arguably undergone more changes than in all its prior decades combined. While other European documentary festivals like Sheffield Doc/Fest and International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam maintain a center of verité/interview/archive-based output, CPH has all but abandoned these more classical documentary forms for a whirling parade of the hybrid, the semi-fictive, and the boundary-pushing. One interesting commonality between several of this year’s selections was the deft employment of reenactment. Once a belittled and decried device in visual nonfiction exposition, reenactment enjoyed a brief resurrection thanks to Errol Morris, who though credited for reclaiming the tactic, has for long been the only person able to get away with using it. Here, rather than an aid to uncovering truth, reenactment serves to reveal or create entirely new histories alongside their putative subjects.
With its head-on use of the device, Public Hearing, a new American production by first-time feature director James Kienitz Wilkins, acts out verbatim the transcript of a community hearing on the potential expansion of a Wal-Mart in upstate New York. A combination of uniformly excellent professional and non-professional actors are shot in close up on 16mm black-and-white film, each with their role to play as a public representative, concerned citizen, worker, or company P.R. rep. Without knowing anything about the history of this town, it seems a foregone conclusion that, no matter what is said in this proceeding, the Wal-Mart will go forward with its plans, making the whole thing an ineffectual play about itself. Demonstratively boring at times, the film shows how much people are willing to endure to pretend that a democratic process exists in opposition to corporate manifest destiny. The boredom is the point—no one wants to be there because the event itself has no impact either way. It’s all just a bit of gestural pretending. The wonderfully low-pitched dramatic execution makes the effect of this realization all the greater.
Applying the device in a more subtle way, Philip Scheffner’s Revision is a sort of ephemeral recreation, tracing through memory an unexplained murder and an unfair trial 20 years after the incident. In 1992, in Germany, two Romanian men were found dead in a field, shot at the site of the E.U.’s border with Poland by local hunters who claimed to have mistaken them for wild boars. The hunters were acquitted, the case was closed, and the bereaved families in Romania were never informed that a trial had even taken place. Scheffner goes back to several witnesses and experts involved in the trial and reads them their initial official statements, to find out if their outlook on the trial has changed over time. He also records new statements from the relatives of the deceased, in an attempt to recreate a more just version of the hearing. His inquiries into the material, the people, the places, and circumstances, allow for the return of the facts that were obviously suppressed then—the more thorough his own investigation, the more tragic the incident becomes. Legally speaking, the case remains closed, but the film opens up a parallel history in which the dead could be treated justly.
Embracing the truths revealed in fiction, the Swedish hybrid Roland Hassel re-examines the 1986 unsolved murder case of Prime Minister Olof Palme. Cleverly blending popular cultural memory with actual events, the film presents itself as the next chapter in a popular Swedish detective TV series from the ’80s, also called Roland Hassel, by bringing the title character to the task of unpacking the facts of the assassination. By day, Hassel pores over the case documents and meets with (real life) journalists and self-appointed private detectives who remain obsessed with solving the crime. By night, Hassel gathers his assistants and thoroughly reenacts the shooting and the getaway. Styled to look like a VHS dub of an old TV show, the film stars Lars-Erik Berenett, the actor who originally played Hassel, ostensibly retired from regular detective work and now looking quite out of shape and weathered—as though he has indeed been exasperatedly searching for the answers to this 25-year-old crime all this time. Thus the only “true” elements of this version of the series are that Roland Hassel has aged normally, and that the crime, and all the recreated elements of it, remain real, and a matter of enduring concern to a whole subset of Swedes. One of Sweden’s most recognizable pop culture figures reappears in the service of curing a real national pathology.
The Danish/Norwegian/British production, The Act of Killing, which opened the festival and won its main prize, the Dox:Award, takes reenactment to a new extreme. Executive produced by Errol Morris himself, the film revolves around a group of former mercenaries in Indonesia who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of suspected Communists in the 1960s, and are yet celebrated on talk shows and in the streets as heroes. As a way of telling the underreported story of these mass murders—up to 500,000 Indonesians were killed during this time—the directors convince the killers to dramatically recreate their offenses. They concede, but on the condition that they can use intricate sets and elaborate makeup and costume, depicting their murders in the fashion of the Hollywood gangster films and musicals of their youth. The film consists in large part of the production and presentation of these scenes, but though the documentary was intended as an attempt to shed light on these crimes, it’s clear that the gang of killers sees the performances as a way of maintaining their popularity. In reenacting horrid scenes of massacres, they seem mostly sanguine—and any moments of reflection are indistinguishable from further mugging for the camera. In the usual documentary narrative, over the course of the film the gangsters would begin to comprehend their own guilt—reenactment as a form of therapy, as a revision of historical legacy. The fact that they don’t fascinatingly implicates the work in its own perplexing moral ambiguity.