Here I want to revisit Peirce’s writing on the index, which offers a broader definition of the term than the one typically used in film studies. And in excavating the implications of his other examples for my analysis of In Country, I intend to center indexicality in the experiencing body over the image. This is not to dismiss image-making practices culturally marked as documentary, which might be grouped by their shared intention towards conjuring “touch” with the past in a variety of ways. Indeed, the ubiquity of images in our everyday lives forces us to internalize contents, cultural conventions of spectatorship, and practices of image making, and so cannot be ignored.

But I do make the claim that documentary experience need not—indeed cannot—start in the image, photographic or otherwise. While the makers of In Country shot in an observational style and did not manipulate their footage in post, the records of reenactors in the woods were not the focal point of evidence that registered as such for the filmmakers. Rather, they found “touch” with the past unexpectedly, more like in Peirce’s offhand example of a man with a rolling gait than in his more often quoted characterization of the photograph.

In his taxonomy of the index, Peirce included examples of indexical signs that had less to do with scientific instruments than with the subjective sensation of being startled by particular perceptions. In one instance, he considered his perception of a man’s “rolling gait” as an indexical sign: “I see a man with a rolling gait. This is a probable indication that he is a sailor” (108). Between the two sentences, “I see…” and “This is a probable…,” there is a tacit personal question: why did this man’s walk strike me as notable? It compels Peirce to offer an explanation. It also arises from an observation of performative behavior, in Judith Butler’s sense of the term—that is, the repeated activities, gestures, or ways of thinking that produce, reinforce, and reify identity over time.[3] [open endnotes in new page] The performative utterance or gesture brings a state of affairs into being rather than describing a thing that already exists, and so constitute a politics.

Peirce refers to the reiterative labor process—working as a sailor—that might have caused the rolling gait in the late 1800s. But the grounds for the indexical sign to emerge at a moment in Peirce’s mind did not develop quickly for the man who walked this way. If indeed the gait was the occupational byproduct that Peirce deduced, then the rolling gait indexed a life at sea. The gait perceived in an instant by Peirce “touches” the accumulation of past time. There was likely nothing startling about the style of walk for the man doing the walking, and it was not obvious that the “rolling gait” should register as a sign in a different context, perhaps closer to the docks, where it might simply be the way “we” walk.[4] It is a striking way of moving to Peirce and then perhaps to us as readers aiming to be in synchrony with his description. When he marks this man’s walk as a “rolling gait,” we readers can understand the startling aspect of what Peirce calls indexical signs, even if we cannot exactly envisage the reiterative walk cycle of Peirce’s probable sailor of a now bygone era.

Peirce’s example suggests a theory of thought centered on the psychic experience of reenactment. Here is the startling experience of perceiving difference that one can then explain only through imaginative speculation and further research or thinking. The walk is evidence, but that to which it points beyond the fact of difference remains unclear. It catalyzes further consideration of this particular man, and the set of life conditions that led him to walk this way. Touch with the sign “rolling gait” is compelled and affective. It is a surge without codified meaning, generated intersubjectively and leaving the affected perceiver with work yet to do.

The process of perception, affect, and thought entailed in this example is the starting point for documentary work. Unexpected, contingent details emerge in the field of perception, beckoning further exploration and attempts at discovery. It is worth noting that the pleasure of viewing and re-viewing (or reenacting) direct cinema and cinéma vérité style documentary also depends upon the process that Pierce describes here. The rolling gait is a sign for Peirce that registers in a moment, but suggests a lifetime and a life world. Like Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum as “that accident [in the photograph] which pricks me,” Pierce experiences a startling sensation at the moment of observing the rolling gait (Barthes, 26). This moment, the index, remains at the heart of documentary film practice, though it has little to do with technology per se. Peirce expands at greater length on the startling, ephemeral nature of the indexical sign:

“A rap on the door is an index. Anything which focuses the attention is an index. Anything which startles us is an index, in so far as it marks the junction between two portions of experience. Thus a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was. But it may be expected to connect itself with some other experience” (108).

“Anything which focuses the attention” must mark its difference from other things for the subject doing the perceiving of it. There is a suddenness to these indexical signs—the rap at the door, the thunderbolt—that compels the perceiver to attend to it. Shifting to the domain of camerawork (and by extension film viewing experience), a cameraperson waits amid subjects before the lens for the emergence of something as striking as the rap on the door. It is perhaps a detail that others present or subsequent viewers might not notice, or might notice differently. And why this something as opposed to that something demands attention is a matter as difficult for filmmakers to articulate in the moment as reenactors who try to explain the appeal of what they do. In both cases, without the perceiving subject to experience this something, this indexical sign will not emerge.

This something opens possibilities for thinking about the interplay of various subjectivities and a situated theory of the index. Within this framework, we may theorize an indexical relation inhering in a felt, bodily sensation mediated through a photograph, weathervane, plumb bob, bullet mold. . . or embodied performance. The perceiving subject momentarily senses the past activities of another being, beings, or ecosystem in an intersubjective engagement. We may also consider the possibility that the presence of moving images, however horrific or sensational their contents, may not in themselves produce the sensation of their indexicality in a particular viewer. That which startles into rumination on history is contextual and contingent. It has no necessary relationship with a photograph. Neither should documentary theory.

Reenactment and camerawork: a personal take

Reenactment reopens the question about the relation between the trace and the body. Participants in a reenactment do not directly experience a traumatic past, but in performing a simulation of it, they become the carriers of its felt traces. These traces register through people’s embodied reenactment in the midst of performance rather than on filmic material. Reenactment routinely serves as a method of inquiry in performance art, media archeology, living history, ritual commemoration, documentary filmmaking, television dramatization, and psychodrama therapy. Simulation training in fire, police, and military applications also makes use of precedent events, and function in practice much like war reenactments. Motivations for participating in reenactment events include working through personally traumatic experiences, producing a collective identity around the shared interpretation of an historical moment, or learning about embodied historical experience by simulating archaic material and technological constraints in the present.[5]

Film practitioners have generally viewed the transition from analog to digital media differently from theorists. Documentary filmmakers who saw inexpensive cameras, nonlinear editing software, and socially networked distribution platforms as material advantages for crafting empathic stories about their subjects largely ignored the crisis identified in documentary theory. For instance, when the occasionally dubbed “father of direct cinema” Albert Maysles was asked in 2002 for his thoughts on digital recording processes, he enumerated twenty-seven ways that shooting on digital video could “serve all the purposes that I’ve always had much, much better” than film, including the flip out screen, low cost, and more flexible shooting ratios.[6]

As a nonfiction filmmaker who learned on 16 mm film and then started working with DV in the early 2000s, I relished the advantages of digital media formats for making intimate, long-form documentaries free from intimidating needs for institutional funding and equipment. The small camera that could record an hour of tape at the cost of $4 increased my chances of “capturing” unexpected, idiosyncratic, contingent events that would infuse my films with a sense of life. The virtualization and ubiquity of video production tools have posed other epistemological dilemmas, however. Always having a camera at the ready, and always thinking about how the present moment might be mined for a future time and different sort of recognition changed my process of perception. I looked for everyday life events that already seemed to have built in what people working in the film industry would call “high production values.”

Between 2002 and 2005, I conducted a reverse participant ethnography and filmed with a group of New Englanders who reenacted battles from the U.S. Revolutionary War as 18th century British soldiers, commonly referred to as “the Redcoats.” My documentary, titled About Face!: Reenacting in a Time of War (2010), explored how discourses on the then contemporaneous war in Iraq circulated through the bodies of those who played the part of America’s “first enemy” in reenactment performances.[7] It was a documentary about something like what Michel Foucault called “biopolitics,”[8] about how state power is reproduced and enforced at the level of the subject body. But in hindsight, my twenty-two year-old self was also drawn to the subject because of the way the reenactment projected onto the world the contours of cinematic drama—lavish costumes, events that gestured at life and death stakes, complex points of identification, possibilities for humor, and clear timelines. The reenactments, in other words, were designed to attract cameras, and I fell for the lure. I dressed as a Redcoat and played the role of an 18th century infantryman in battle reenactments and training sessions to make the film. The experience led me to places that I did not expect, and at times into positions in which I was uncomfortable. My body projected a set of narratives about national identity with which I had significant and growing qualms.

And there is a similar tension in the In Country filmmakers’ claim to have made a film about “understanding” this group of Vietnam War reenactors. Cultural historians Brenda Boyle and Jeehyun Lee argued that at least some of the reenactors in the film have structured their performances of individual personhood and trauma to prevent engaging with “the complexities of military and foreign policies, the history of Viet Nam’s anticolonial struggles, or the ethics of the whole affair.” That Joel Kinney, the founder of the Vietnam War reenacting group featured in the film, described in the In Country Bonus Features his first experience seeing the film as “kind of like a father seeing his child portrayed in a positive manner” does little to dispel Boyle and Lee’s critique (Attie and O’Hara, 2014b).

In my case, reenactment posed other practical challenges to filming.  To maintain the appearance of an 18th century soldier, I was not permitted to film while playing a role. I would videotape at events where I was not required to appear in uniform, and during one particularly large reenactment, my group permitted me to wear a well-concealed spy camera. But I usually had to rely on other camerapersons to film those events. As a participant, I was able to experience and speak at length with many reenactors about their strategies for thinking deeply about the struggles and everyday lives of 18th century people. These perspectives were at odds with most media reports about the reenactments, which typically rehashed narratives about “morally just” violence from the past to rationalize U.S. imperial ventures in the present. But they also did not address so well the question about why participants reenact. Verbalized answers to this question are too pat in many cases, or grounded in feelings not easily translated into words. The film historicized the rise of U.S. reenactment in the 1960s and 1970s amid white male anxieties about feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the turn from political to social history, which threatened the stability of celebratory stories about national origins.

Much of the film about the Revolutionary War reenactment focused on a reenactor with Native American ancestry who had served as a sniper in Vietnam and Desert Storm, and communicated about his experiences to me through references to popular films like Apocalypse Now (1979), Rambo (1982), and Enemy at the Gates (2001). His experiences as a soldier seemed to give him unusual affective tools through which to understand battles of the past. When we once stood together on what seemed to me yet another empty historic battlefield, for instance, he told me that just being there “made the hairs stand up on the back of [his] neck.” While I learned a great deal from this particular reenactor, recording such sentiments using mostly observational shooting methods was difficult. I leaned heavily on conversational filming and voiceover to communicate, sometimes speculatively, about that which could not be seen. The filmmakers of In Country dealt with a similar problem in a different way.

Reenacting and filming reenactment did open for me a way for thinking about documentary as a form of experience rather than a genre of film. Reenactment experience generates something like what Sobchack (1999) called “a documentary mode of consciousness,” here applied to the performed world rather than the screen (246). Sobchack wrote about documentary consciousness as being like the mentality of the apprentice, searching the screen for cues to learn things of cultural importance. Similarly, reenactors who roleplay as Redcoats in their leisure time are learning from the same manual as their 18th century referents. The sensations that reenactors feel in doing so—of the body as mechanical part, the camaraderie of common purpose, the unity of action, humanity as machine—seem to comingle text and body, the indexical connection to the past created as these contemporary people collectively follow old directions. Reenactors often describe experiencing the strong and yet puzzling sensation of what performance scholars call “dual consciousness” as they perform, part here and now and part in an imagined body of the past. In the terms of performance scholar Rebecca Scchneider (2009), “times touch” through the body’s performative citations. For me, such moments provoked abiding questions about the nature of connection, discovery, and the ethics of historical understanding—core concerns of documentary theory—rather than answers about what past lives were like. While the rest of this article is not about my own experience as a reenactor, I inevitably draw upon those insights and experiences in analyzing the filming and reenacting of the Vietnam War in In Country.

To touch back on the theoretical argument sketched above, the production process behind In Country exposed a shortcoming in a notion of indexicality rooted so firmly in technology and the image. While filmmakers Attie and O’Hara used digital technologies to record images and sounds of the reenactment, they somewhat unconsciously followed 1960s and 1970s analog documentary tenets grounded in faith that the image could represent events. The directors never considered manipulating frames or shots in post-production beyond basic editing and color correction. Yet the subject of the film itself is already a step removed from representation, already an image of war shorn of fear and death and built to feel cinematic.

The material connection between the image with stakes and its subject, in other words, was “degraded” before Attie even turned his digital camera on. The purported loss of indexicality has nothing to do with the digital or analog image itself. However, the U.S. men featured in the film—like the Redcoat reenactors with whom I participated—do aim for indexical “touch” with the past through their documentary method of choice, shared reenactment performance.

Synopsis of In Country

In Country follows the story of a group of men from Oregon who reenact battles from the Vietnam War, but the opening five minutes of the film do not foreshadow the unfolding of this story. We are instead led to believe that we are watching an observational film about soldiers five years into the Vietnam War itself who are about to undertake a deadly mission. A somewhat insecure and informally dressed officer under a tent rallies a group of ten or so U.S. soldiers, and then a unit leader debriefs his men on the plan to destroy weapons caches in a lightly patrolled “VC area.” High strings in the background cue us to potential dangers as we see the men wade across the river in water up to their thighs, step through the brush with weapons drawn, and spot an enemy encampment through the leaves by the river. “We came upon their Viet Cong camp,” whispers one soldier into a radio. There is a straight cut to a shot of other U.S. soldiers hiding by a nearby road, who copy the message.

One whispers to the camera that he’s relatively old at twenty-four and doing his second tour with “no end in sight.”  The eerie soundscape fades out, and the film tips its hat as being of reenactment and anachronism rather than Vietnam. The soldier we just heard waves at a large, modern red truck with a dog in the flatbed as it rolls by their position. An ironic, 60s slide-show-style title-card reading “IN COUNTRY” comes on screen set to the opening of Count Five’s classic 1966 rock track “Psychotic Reaction.” The ensuing music montage juxtaposes archival footage of army basic training in the late 1960s with shots of the reenactors preparing their props and food for the reenactment. This dynamic introduces a key mechanism for advancing the narrative through the rest of the film, which employs archival footage as markers of the past that remain in the present. But the moment for affectively dropping film viewers into the world of Vietnam has now passed. All subsequent footage of these characters dressed in 1960s army garb reads as documenting performance rather than events of war. In some respects, this opening “fiction” is the only moment in the film in which the viewer sees the environment as the reenactors attempt to experience it through their roleplay.

The narrative structure centers on a single reenactment that takes place over a weekend in Oregon, but the film from this point on draws from a variety of sources for footage. Scenes made from footage of other times and places spin out from the storyline of the reenactment almost like memories triggered unexpectedly from details in the performance. Seven sequences of archival clips of journalists’ and filmmakers’ 16 mm films of U.S. soldiers in training and Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s, which depict actual death, suffering, and malaise, function as complex affective and visual points of comparison to the reenactment. In some cases, they seem to stand in directly for the memories one or another reenactor who undertakes a similar task in the reenactment. Interviews with the reenactors focus on why they participate in the hobby as well as personal reflections on war and reintegration into civilian life. We also see observational footage of reenactors’ everyday lives with families, friends, and contemporary military units, and “home movie” footage of several reenactors’ deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tuna’s body-camera footage from Iraq. Tuna, hand over his mouth in awe, at the power he felt in detonating a bomb some distance from his Humvee in Iraq.

As the film unfolds, the ensemble of reenactors reveals more intimate details about their lives and histories with war outside of the reenactment. We tour the home of Joel Kinney, a Vietnam War memorabilia collector fascinated by the affective powers of the aroma of “bug juice,” slang for the plastic bottles of DDT-laced insect repellant issued to U.S. soldiers during the war, to compel veterans’ psychic returns to tours in Vietnam. We see Iraq War army veteran Charles “Tuna” Ford playing soldier with his small children in the grass of a fenced suburban backyard. In an interview, he recalls wanting to join the army as a high schooler for “carrying a gun, having authority, and doing the cool guy stuff,” and the film then cuts to footage he recorded on a body camera while raiding a house in Iraq. We also see footage of him detonating a bomb in the Iraqi desert from the driver’s seat of a Humvee, an experience of power he characterizes as “fucking tight” and then “indescribable” to his comrade behind the camera. We hear the reflections of South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) reenactor named Vinh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who fought for the ARVN with the U.S. military in the 1960s and then immigrated to Oregon after the war. He says that he reenacts to “revisit the image of what I was in the past.” We meet a participant named Hayden “Bummy” Baumgartner who fought in Vietnam as a young man in 1970-1 and reenacts “to go back” and serve as an advisor to the group on uniform authenticity. A reenactor named Lucien “Doc” Darensburg served as a medic during the Iraq War, and talks on camera about soldierly camaraderie and the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life and coping with PTSD. Matt Kinney, the manager of a Portland brewery who has no affiliation with the contemporary military, reenacts to live out “that childhood love of playing war in the woods.” And a high school student named David “Cricket” Safina-Massey speaks on camera about how he has enlisted to join the Marines once he turns eighteen. M. Kinney and Cricket serve as foils to reenactors with past military experience and soldiers pictured in archival footage in Vietnam.

Hayden “Bummy” Baumgartner, a Vietnam veteran who participates in the reenactment, seen here advising younger members of the group on how to improve the authenticity of their appearance. Lucien “Doc” Darensburg, a former army medic participating at the time of the filming in his first reenactment.
Matt Kinney, a brewer from Portland, Oregon. At the time of the filming, he had not served in the military, and two sections of the film portray him as relatively inexperienced and somewhat naïve in comparison to the other reenactors. David “Cricket” Safina-Massey, a high school student who has already enlisted to join the Marines. In his most commented-upon appearance in the film, which I analyze at length later in the article, he describes the realness of the reenactment compared to the Boy Scouts.