Acting As Yourself or As Somebody Else — Re-enactments in Film

in 60th International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen

by Antti Selkokari

It is rather easy to spot trends or features uniting several films across a certain section of a film festival, and this is certainly the case with the international competition programme on offer at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival 2014.

Quite a lot of films bring forth different aspects of re-enactment. A film that most powerfully employs re-enactment as a narrative technique is Sugarcoated Arsenic, directed by Kevin Jerome Emerson. The film focuses on a dramatic speech given by professor Vivian Gordon at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, during the 1970s — a time when the struggle for ensuring equal rights to all Americans irrespective of their race, religion, or sexual orientation was highly politicised. This struggle elicited a fierce thirst for a more diverse knowledge about history and society.

Gordon, an African American scholar and activist, had a profound impact on her audience, which Sugarcoated Arsenic vividly illustrates. Emerson uses a tape recording of Gordon’s original speech and builds up from there. Gordon’s speech is a carefully constructed intellectual and political agitation that makes her audience crave more tools for changing society.

Re-enactments make one consider the question of authenticity. How authentic can a re-enactment be, after all, since it is something acted and necessarily done so post factum? How does one actually represent authentic emotions? In the case of Sugarcoated Arsenic, the question of authenticity never really arises because the film convinces its viewer of the sheer likelihood of the emotions presented. The power of Gordon’s speech, the actors, and the period sets and costumes all build up to an effect of credibility. Sugarcoated Arsenic is a re-enactment that gives us more than a clue of the physical reality, while it also gives us a small understanding of the emotional reality of the event. Emerson’s film comes frighteningly close to our own time where, tragically, racism lives on.

Nowadays war re-enactments are a popular theme, with re-enactments of military battles like Gettysburg or Waterloo gathering thousands of history enthusiasts. One is prone to think that the popularity of such endeavors could be explained by the opportunity they provide for double perspectives, the chance to have the experience of someone “who was there”. Of course, everyone must attend the re-enactments as himself with all his knowledge of modern life.

Re-enactments have become astoundingly popular, albeit more popular in TV documentaries than in films. These TV documentaries usually deal with a narrow historical event, such as a particular battle. However, at the Oberhausen festival, an especially fine South African documentary film Gangster Backstage, by Teboho Edkins, comes close to being a hybrid of a film and a TV re-enactment, since the actual gangsters from Cape Town appear in the film. They more or less act as themselves, reminiscing about their feelings and thoughts from their gangster careers. Their performances create a vivid image of what it is like to be a gangster.

Edkins’s film is one of great intensity, and it is incredible how much access the filmmaker had to these youngsters. How much of this was re-enacted? This one looks like a filmmaker’s sketch for a feature-length documentary. The film has a theatrical feeling to it, which is something it shares with Sugarcoated Arsenic.

Glamour and Ordinariness Merge

Jesse McLean’s Just Like Us, which won the Fipresci prize, borrows its title from a celebrity column published in an American weekly magazine. It is a work that excitingly treads the intersection of art and film.

Quotes from a tabloid paper’s celebrity column are illustrated with images that emphasise the banality of celebrity culture. Two kinds of lives are paralleled in the film: the lives of celebrities and the lives of ordinary people. The ordinary people admire the glamour of celebrities and want to live like them. The celebrities, on the other hand, want to live and look like ordinary people. We get to see snapshots of celebrities in the malls lining up for their turn at the counter, buying household items, or devouring fast food. For the most part, the film is silent and has no voice-over. Quotes from celebrity magazines are used as inter-titles, but have the affect of subtitles of a monologue never voiced.

The set for all this is the vastness of box stores on the outskirts of nearly every town in the Western world. One could be tempted to consider the film as a piercing satire of Western culture, where lifestyles are distributed and purchased via box stores. Yet the ocean of box stores has flooded places that used to be people’s homes, whose bedroom was where there now sale stands for smartphones, laptops and all the hardware that comes with digital lifestyle. In other words, the very tools for creating the cult of celebrity, a cult that feeds on a 24/7 surveillance of celebrities’ lives and demands that ordinary people contribute via their smartphone snaps to the ever-hungry tabloid press.

McLean’s film combines elements from museum and gallery videos to those of personal essays. As such, Just Like Us defies easy definition and dares to leave itself open for interpretation.

Edited by Pamela Cohn