Who's afraid of fiction?
Thinking back on the character-based documentaries we've seen so far, the question that seems to have pushed to the front, at least for me, is how such a film can escape dramatic re-enactment? Unless you do what Deborah Scranton did, and give your main characters cameras and hope for the best, there is really no way to drive a convincing film without some sort of loosely scripted dramatic reenactment. Consider the policeman in Why We Fight, who we watch exchanging emails with the air force as if it was happening for the first time. Or Alex Gibney's videos of "torture." Or The Devil Came on Horseback, which follows Stidle as he photographs Darfur, as if for the first time. All of these are basically scripted plots, but they must pretend to be real--capturing to original moment--to be effective. If a documentary is character-based, the rule seems to be that nothing can present itself as fictive, or else the film, or at least the character, loses its legitimacy.
I finally got around to watching Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a (somewhat bizarre) essay film that explores the connection between communism and sexuality in 1970's Yugoslavia. Despite the continuous presence of penis molds, oral sex, and medically induced catharsis in the film, what caught me the most was Makavejev's free play between the traditional documentary format and fictive plotlines. All of Makavejev's footage consists of interviews, performance art, or plots that have no claim to historical accuracy. But how powerful is the effect! Not only does the fictive side of the movie fail to disturb the legitimacy of the rest, it provides the "true" footage, the interviews and montages, with new meaning--and, ultimately, it actually legitimizes the message of the movie.
This distinction vaguely reminds me of Benjamin's distinction between timeless "stories" and ephemeral "information" (only vaguely, though, since Benjamin seems to think that the story is merely a relic of the past). The character-based films we've seen all happen to serve a common purpose--to expose what is going on now, and hopefully mobilize public opinion to bring about a solution to whatever problem is observed. Hence the need for re-enactments to present themselves as history. In this sense, the character-based film's power lies in its novelty, like information (as Benjamin understands it). Meanwhile, the essay film fucntions quite differently, more like the story. Unlike character-driven films, which shine light on current events that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, the essay film's power lies in its timelessness. The power of the images in the film lies not in their novelty, but in the meanings attached to them. Hence, I find an essay film like Marakejev's to hold sway even today, 35 years later.
For a film like John Santos', then, I think I like the idea of an essay film, as he pitched it. What he seems to want to get at is not a certain event that might otherwise go unnoticed, but a deeper statement about human nature--about how people react to images in a mediated world. Meanwhile, for a film like Robert Jensen’s, which seeks to shine light on a humanitarian crisis that will otherwise go undetected, I'd find the character-driven format more appropriate. If a camera follows him as he retraces his footsteps that led to his terrible discovery, I think the result would be a film that leaves no doubt that the "missing women" issue is a real crisis that requires urgent attention.
But that's just my take. What do you think?