This year's Oscar-winning short documentary is raising hackles for the way it used unmarked reenactments and other archival footage.
The Web site “Tell the Truth Pictures” describes the “faux doc” technique. (tttpictures.com)
"Mighty Times: The Children's March" took home the Academy Award Feb. 27 for its portrayal of a famous children's demonstration in Birmingham, Ala., during the summer of 1963.
Now, "March" is being criticized for deceiving viewers about its visual evidence.
Steven Kalafer, producer of "Sister Rose's Passion" (also nominated in the short documentary category), complained to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a Mar. 18 letter that director Bobby Houston and producer Robert Hudson had misled audiences by incorporating unflagged reenactments into their 40-minute documentary.
Houston and Hudson of Tell the Truth Pictures did not deny using reenactments. In fact, re-enactments have long been an accepted tool in documentary filmmaking, and the academy's rules allow for reenactments.
Furthermore, Houston and Hudson have championed their method of staging history, which they call a "faux doc" technique.
"Using vintage cameras and archaic film stocks, it is possible to fill in the blanks of history without a seam," they explain on their Web site. "'Mighty Times' proved that it's possible to leave an audience wondering, 'Where did they GET that footage?'"
"In order to distinguish 'faux doc' from archival footage, we stripe the borders of reenactment scenes with film sprockets," they say. "The net result is honorable both artistically and historically, making very clear which footage is new and which is not."
Houston told the New York Times their process was like baking a biscotti.
"We make a classic documentary using the archival record," he said in the story. "We then make another layer of film. We bake the cookie twice, like a biscotti. That second layer of film fills in the gaps, and what you end up with is a seamless telling and definitive telling of unknown chapters from civil rights history."
In fact, Houston and Hudson made an earlier film in the "Mighty Times" series called "The Legacy of Rosa Parks." That film, also funded by Teaching Tolerance in association with Home Box Office, used the faux doc technique and incorporated a disclaimer about the reenactments.
The version of "The Children's March" that academy members viewed, however, incorporated neither.
"In comparing the two films, it is clear that they chose to realize the full potential of their 'faux doc' technique, raising it to a new level as a well-crafted, cunningly deceitful art form—but not documentary filmmaking," wrote Kalafer in his letter to the academy, as quoted by the New York Times.
Houston and Hudson said they submitted "March" without the sprocket holes and disclaimer at the request of HBO, which felt that such markers distanced the material from audiences, according to the Times.
HBO, however, denied that to the Times and said when it airs the documentary in June, it will at least have a disclosure about the reenactments.
Teaching Tolerance, an arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, distributes a version with the disclaimer and sprocket holes.
The controversy involves another issue, however—one garnering less publicity but no less important for filmmakers and audiences.
After the academy received Kalafer's letter, it hired John Else, series producer on the 1987 documentary "Eyes on the Prize," to review "The Children's March." Else, now director of the documentary program at the University of California, Berkeley, is an expert on archival civil rights footage.
Else acknowledged the dilemma with undistinguished reenactments on NPR's "All Things Considered" Mar. 29, but he brought up another problem.
"There are in fact shots from other cities at other times that are edited into the events in Birmingham," he said.
"Certainly, when the ordinary viewers see a scene of historical footage in Birmingham, Alabama, and inserted into that is a shot from, say, the Watts riot in California, certainly ordinary viewers are going to believe that that in fact took place in Birmingham," Else continued.
Else said "The Children's March" used footage from the Watts riot and the Little Rock school desegregation crisis—not as allusions to those crises, but as inserts into the story about Birmingham in 1963.
"The story of the events in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1963 actually did unfold the way it's portrayed. The problem here is the evidence that's put on the screen," Else said. "The problem here is the visualization, and that's where we get into this murky area."
Houston and Hudson broke no academy rules, but AMPAS Executive Director Bruce Davis said the rules and regulations concerning documentaries will probably be tightened in the next few months, according to the Times.
"I think what the academy is rightly doing is looking at how it defines documentary," Else told NPR.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.