Sitting before the camera, John Atkinson recounts how he met the man who ruined his life. It was in the nineties, in a pub where he went after the suicide of a friend. When he describes the conversation in which the waiter told him that he was an MI5 secret agent, we see two men talking in a pub, and the words that Atkinson attributes to his interlocutor are synchronized with the movement of the actor’s lips, which, with the face in darkness, plays the waiter. The scene corresponds to who pulls the strings (Sam Benstead and Gareth Johnson), the Netflix series that tells the hair-raising story of Robert Freegard, an impostor who pretended to be a spy to alienate, subdue and destroy the lives of those who believed him, and in the process empty their accounts, making them think that they were part of covert operations and that if they did not follow their instructions their lives would be in danger.
At another point in the documentary, Peter Smith, the father of another of Freegard’s victims, recounts his quest to locate his daughter, whom the impostor kept in isolation for a decade, and his story is punctuated with images that disciplinedly recreate his story and in which he is embodied by an actor who looks very similar to the one Smith looks in front of the camera, despite the fact that the referred episode had passed 25 years ago.
To a character like Freegard, sentenced in 2005 to life imprisonment, but who was released from prison in 2009 after appealing and being acquitted of the most serious charges, and who is still on the loose and doing his thing, it was a matter of time before a platform dedicated a docuthriller, infested, like so many, with redundant visual recreations of the situations narrated by the victims and their families. The abuse of dramatized reconstructions is a growing trend in documentaries based on true crimes, although the subgenre flourished precisely with stories whose expressive force rested on the abundance of archive images and succulent, often unpublished recordings.
Take the example of Capturing the Friedmans (2003), the Andrew Jarecki film that was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary and propelled the fashion for docuthrillers. The genesis of this film is revealing: Jarecki was preparing a film about clowns at children’s parties and one of them told him that his father and brother were convicted of pedophilia and he opened wide his archive of home movies, including those that documented how the family had experienced that process.
The platforms further triggered the fashion of the so-called truecrime, and today the great ones abound hits that rely on the richness of the audiovisual material they handle. OJ: Made in America (2016), a vigorous scrutiny of the career of OJ Simpson —whose five hour and a half episodes were screened continuously in some theaters, which allowed him to win an Oscar—, takes advantage of the fact that the superstar of the American football national league (NFL) in disgrace after the murder of his wife has always lived under the spotlight to draw, based on archive images, an epic critical fresco that covers half a century of American history. In wild wild country (2018), the first season of tiger-king (2020) or The oath (2020) the disconcerting realities surpass fiction by a landslide, and are told based on recordings made by their protagonists. In this way, the viewer attends the interiors of, respectively, the commune controlled by the guru Osho when he settled in Oregon; flamboyant Joe Exotic’s private zoo; or the sexual sect NXIUM.
But the growing demand for productions of this type has unleashed a fever to rescue black chronicle stories from the newspaper library in documentary format, even though there are no images with which to narrate them. Hence the bubble of interchangeable shots of protagonists sitting in front of the camera and of dramatizations, a technique actually as old as the documentary genre itself, because the pioneer Robert Flaherty made the Eskimos of Nanuk the Eskimo (1922) interpreted themselves performing daily tasks, and that since that foundational use has always been embedded in controversy.
On the ground of truecrime, in 1988 Errol Morris already resorted to reconstructions in The Thin Blue Line, with which he proved the innocence of a man sentenced to death. He used them as a method of collating conflicting evidence or testimony. Morris has always defended this dialectical function of dramatizations. In 2008 he blogged about him at New York Times that they are a tool that allows capturing “the important details” of an investigation: “They are not the recreations per se which are incorrect or inappropriate. It is the use made of them. I use re-enactments to dig below the surface of reality in an attempt to uncover some hidden truth.” In wormwood, which he directed in 2017 for Netflix, Morris tells the story of a scientist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1953 after being used as a guinea pig in an experiment with LSD by the CIA, and alternates archive footage and interviews with dramatized fragments, as if of a fiction film in question, which recreate an official version riddled with inconsistencies.
Other renowned documentary filmmakers have resorted to recreations. Joe Berlinger, responsible for the trilogy Lost paradise (1996, 2000 and 2011), one of the summits of the truecrime, admitted in December Variety that 15 or 20 years ago he did not accept them “in any way”, but that he has changed his mind. As evidence, the recurring use he makes of them in Cecil Hotel Disappearance Y The Times Square Killer the two seasons of his series for Netflix Crime scene, both released in 2021. Berlinger argues that dramatizations are more respectful of victims than the use of crime scene photographs, and also that they are a more elaborate art form than working with photos. “I don’t think re-enactments are right for everything, but in this genre and for this kind of storytelling, I think they work,” he says.
More than a decade after Capturing the Friedmans, also Jarecki succumbed to the mechanism in The Jinx (2015), the HBO documentary series that ended with the admission, recorded by a microphone that millionaire Robert Durst did not remember he was still wearing, that he had murdered three people. In Spain, the resource has also spread, as can be seen in The Palmar de Troya (Israel of the Holy, 2020) or dovecotes (Álvaro Ron, 2021), both produced by Movistar Plus+.
Regardless of the cinematographic neatness with which these scenes are filmed, when watching them it is often difficult to escape the feeling that, far from the functions to which Morris limits them, and as in the documentary about the false spy Freegard, they do not contribute much more than the orthopedic illustration of stories that lacked images. Too greedy stories that, in the absence of visual documents with which to assemble them, could serve as the basis for podcast or dramatic series, but which, on the other hand, go on to swell the already huge catalog of the fashion subgenre on platforms, albeit at the cost of resembling less and less documentaries and more like fiction productions.
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