Being there again: reenacting camerawork in In Country (2014)

by Andy Rice

Recurring evidence of the Vietnam War

Though now fifty years in the past, the Vietnam War remains vivid in U.S. collective memory. Most recently, stories in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s eighteen hour PBS series The Vietnam War (2017) have elicited critics’ parallels to ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and renewed nationalist hubris.[1] [open endnotes in new window] As with Novick and Burns’ previous war films, The Vietnam War draws its storyline and affective power from combining personal interviews, photographs from family albums, revelatory “behind the scenes” recordings of key figures in presidential administrations, and archival film materials and still photographs recorded by journalists who were there in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Jamie Baron’s theory of the “archive effect” aptly describes the popular reception of the various kinds of media in Burns’ work, as well as many other historical documentaries. Materials that viewers experience as “found” in The Vietnam War produce a “temporal disparity” between present day interview and historical footage (Baron, 2012, p. 106). This experiential dynamic carries with it the authorizing power of the state institutions that once maintained archives, regardless of whether or not Novick and Burns gathered their materials in such places. However, “found footage” in a film about the Vietnam War must not inevitably be read as “of” the past in this way.

In contrast to The Vietnam War, In Country (2014), a documentary about men from Oregon who reenact battles from the Vietnam War, situates the war very much in the here and now of performance. What Barron calls the “proliferation of indexical documents outside of official archives” into spaces like YouTube here seems to have been internalized by this film’s reenactor subjects—who have watched numerous documentaries, YouTube clips, and Hollywood films about the Vietnam War (102). During the reenactment, they project something of these viewing experiences onto the world and each other for reasons that vary by person.

Near the end of In Country, the Vietnam War reenactor subjects of the film let boys at a parade hold their M-16s to pose for a photograph. When I asked director Mike Attie about the functionality of reenactors’ weapons, he offered the following explanation: “My understanding is that the reenactors use a combination of de-commissioned period weapons and blank-firing replicas.  There is some kind of modification that is done to the tip of the barrel that keeps it from firing live rounds.” 

How then are we to make sense of this internalization of the indexical and the filmmakers’ efforts in turn to document those somewhat unobservable experiences of the past on film? The complexities of representing the subject of reenactment, first through camerawork and then through the peculiar integration of archival footage in this film, are the topics at the heart of this article. I aim to show that rather than imbuing the film with the authority of “being there” and the stamp of official history, observational and found footage in In Country suggests contours of the collective psyche in the present. The logic of time in the film is recursive rather than linear—a symptom more broadly of the sensible structure of time in the digital age. It demands a different way of thinking about evidence.

Specifically, the article considers the place of the reenactor body and camerawork in documentary theory. I aim to tease out an argument about temporality and the experience of evidence. Though In Country employs a conventional documentary blend of observational recording, interview, and archival footage, reenactment both in front of and behind the camera catalyzes constructions of the documentary real in the film in an unusual way. Centrally at stake in producing the film was a tension between the subject, a war reenactment performance of past events with stakes, and the filmmakers’ initial instincts to make the film about the reenactment using observational cinema methods like those once employed by journalists in Vietnam. Such cinematography emphasizes “being there” with a camera so as to attend to events in the present believed to have stakes.[2]

I focus on this tension to revisit documentary theory about the core concept of indexicality, usually understood in film and media studies to refer to the existential connection between a photographic image and an event that once occurred in front of the lens. I use the film In Country to argue for theorizing indexicality through the embodied experience of “touch” with the past rather than through technologies of inscription per se. Touch is intersubjective here, as it is constituted in the space between performers who depend on one another to display cues of the past, as well as upon camerapersons, editors, and viewers who make sense of the past as they experience the present. The appeal of reenactment as productive of a complex indexical touch, I argue, reflects a social context shaped by the virtualization of image, camera, and distribution platforms. Internalized cinematic conventions shape how the reenactors see.

The reenactors’ seeing, in turn, quite literally shaped how the filmmakers’ “observational” camerawork could be done in In Country. Vietnam War reenacting is a subculture deeply invested in collective, embodied mimesis as a route to authentic feeling and discovery. For this reason, the thirteen or so reenactors featured in the film very much wanted to find a way for the filmmakers to contribute to the aesthetic realism of their immersive scenario. Unlike some other units of reenactors, the subjects of In Country perform only for one another and not for general audiences or outside observers. Not included in the diegesis of the film is the fact that Attie and O’Hara were dressed as Vietnam era war correspondents, which was the reenactors’ condition for the filmmakers’ access to make the documentary.

In other words, the filmmakers had to reenact in order to “be there.”

“Being there” with a camera so as to avoid the need for staging and reenactment was the explicit goal of 1960s direct cinema and observational cinema. How might we to make sense of this apparent paradox? Below, I start by considering camerawork as a live performance practice. I argue that the cameraperson’s decisions at the moment of recording are indexical gestures touching camerawork of the past. Perhaps for inextricable connections to recording, the live act of camerawork has not been considered as a kind of performance through the lens of performance theory, but this body of theory offers analytical tools that may be brought to bear in new ways on questions that have long been central to film studies and documentary studies about the indexicality of the image. I also draw from Vivian Sobchack’s work on the phenomenology of film viewing experience to tease out the relations between past time and personal knowledge somewhat blurred together by repeated reenactment events. History played over and over again by reenactors starts to become as personal as a home movie.

Last, my analysis draws from an insight central to the work of cinema historian Anne Friedberg (1991), who framed the emergence of the cinema outside of camera and screen technologies. Friedberg argued that it was walking past the tantalizing window displays of shopping malls that primed late 19th century consumers for the cinema. Realism attributed to the mechanical nature of the camera had less to do with cinema’s growth, in her account, than did the chance for an emerging group of consumers—especially middle-class white women in cities—to experience a new kind of empowerment outside the home. I argue here for the inverse in the context of digital culture, where images are ubiquitous and cameras are themselves virtual—increasingly part of “my phone” rather than professional tools for recording watershed events. As the reenactors walk together through foliage in Oregon, for example, theyproject desires for “touch” with the Vietnam War as understood from a mélange of Hollywood movies, training manuals, documentaries, and personal experiences of war. Starting with reenactment instead of the image requires thinking differently about the concept of indexicality. Derived from the concept of the index in the tripartite semiotic system of late 19th century U.S. philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce, descriptions of indexicality in his writing refer more broadly to the relation between the perceiving body and phenomena in the world that conjure past events—what I regard as the experience of reenactment.

I develop this argument in four major sections. First, I revisit writing in documentary studies on the concept of indexicality to then excavate qualities of subjective perception in Peirce’s 1895 writing on this particular category of sign. Second, I reflect on my own experience as a documentary cameraperson who made a film about participating in Revolutionary War reenactments. I tease out reservations about the limitations of reenactment as a documentary method with an eye toward a reading of In Country. Third, I summarize In Country for readers who may not have seen the film. Fourth, I draw from interviews with the filmmakers and close analysis of three scenes to deconstruct the process of making the film. I question the invocation of “being there” as the de facto gold standard of documentary value, which turned out to be inadequate for the filmmakers of In Country to tell the story of the reenactment. And I re-interpret the use of archival footage in the film through the concept of reenactment.I conclude by offering the term “intersubjective indexicality” as a contribution to theorizing documentary experience moving forward.

Meditations on a rolling gait: a return to indexicality

Many documentary theorists worried that the rise of digital imagery starting in the early 1990s posed a crisis for the field. Assuming the materiality of the image was central to arguments about the ethics of documentary work. The image of actual injustice, dignity, or struggle could lead viewers to greater awareness, reflection, critical thinking, and capacities for action to redress perceived wrongs. If the digital image is made up of zeroes and ones that are materially indistinguishable from software programs used to manipulate them, this line of theory contends, then the image itself can no longer serve as a reliable index of events in the world. Digital images did not touch the world in the same way.

Brian Winston, Gail Vanstone, and Wang Chi recently reopened this debate in their take on “digital’s loosening of the referential bond” and implications for a film’s claims to represent reality on technical grounds (Winston, Vanstone, and Chi, 2017). While these authors still focus on screen materials (and especially on computer graphics that fool viewers) instead of bodies per se, they emphasize that it is not the camera or the screen that determines “documentary value” in the 21st century documentary. As they write, the

“weakening of photographic image integrity now gives [reenactment and reconstruction techniques] a legitimacy which [they] previously lacked.” [give page number]

My aim in looking at camerawork and embodied reenactment here is to build on this line of argument, but in doing so to decouple documentary ontology from its traditional object, the finished film, without also giving up on the concept of indexicality and the ethical claims it brings in tow.

The term indexicality entered the lexicon of film studies with Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1972), which adapted the semiotic system of late 19th century U.S. philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce for the field. Wollen mapped Peirce’s semiotics onto ideas about the power of the photographic image and the cinema expressed by 1950s French film theorist André Bazin. In “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” (1960), Bazin claimed that the medium of film was particularly well suited to realist representation because a photograph, while resembling objects before the lens, “actually contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing a substitute for it” (18).

Read through Peirce’s semiotic system, Wollen argued, Bazin was describing the cinema as primarily indexical. As opposed to iconic signs, which bore a resemblance to referents, and symbolic signs, which signified meaning within cultural systems like language rather than perceptual similarity or proximity to referents, indexical signs were physically, materially constituted of their referents, like the weather vane to the wind, the footprint to the foot, or, in this case, the photograph to the camera. It is worth noting that Wollen was making an argument about the nature of film rather than the situatedness of understanding time. In one passage oft quoted in film and media studies, Peirce characterized the photographic process as indexical:

“Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the second class of signs, those by physical connection” (106).

Peirce understood the process of composite photography, in which multiple negatives were seamlessly spliced together to make one image, but downplaying the subjective, expressive dimensions of photography was in keeping with the spirit of late 19th century intellectual life, a moment in which social science disciplines staked claims in the academy as inheritors of the natural sciences (Winston and Tsang). This understanding of the term indexicality was taken up in film studies, where it still refers predominantly to the technological processes of mechanical reproduction, “physically forced” connection between photograph and world, and evidentiary inscription.

Authors including Mary Anne Doane (2007a and b), Bill Nichols (1991), and David Rodowick (2007) have found the concept of indexicality useful for emphasizing the materiality of the image and the ethical obligations of spectators who understand existential connections between events in the world and images of such events. Each has warned that the referential, evidentiary quality of film compared to other plastic arts erodes with the turn from analog film to digital media. Doane (2007b) even called “digital media” a contradiction in terms, as digital creations aim toward the erasure of medium specificity rather than establishing physical, material limits for exploration through a particular art practice. Digital photographs and moving images, such theorists argued, were essentially made of code, of nothing. Software programs like Photoshop were made of the same immaterial stuff, and could alter digital images without detection.

This line of thinking threw the status of media indexicality and the field of documentary studies into question. To take one prominent example, leading documentary theorist Jane Gaines referred in her introduction to Collecting Visible Evidence (1999) to what Bill Nichols called the “indexical whammy” that analog documentary film enjoyed over fiction to ask the question that simulation technologies seemed to pose to a field grounded in the evidentiary status of film: “If it can no longer be said that documentary has reality on its side, what can be said of it?” While acknowledging that “much is at stake” in “giving up the rhetorical clout that comes with the claim of ‘evidence’ of the real,” Gaines suggested moving documentary theory forward through the concept of resemblance, or iconicity, and leaving behind “the impossible claim to indexicality” (6). She argued that most viewers did not distinguish between analog and digital imagery, and intimated that critical obsession over the difference between the two was misplaced. Theorizing the relation between image and the real, she suggested, should thus take more seriously a variety of cultural products considered out of bounds by previous generations of documentary scholars, including simulation programs and video games, animations, and reality television shows.

Vivian Sobchack’s (1999) contribution to this volume offered the insightful point that “documentary is less a thing than an experience” and proposed parsing out ways of viewing into fictional, home movie, and documentary “modes of consciousness” that had more to do with the meeting point of cultural conventions and the personal experiences of the viewer than the image itself (241). Subsequent articles on reenactment in documentary film by Nichols (2008), Jonathan Kahana (2009), Deirdre Boyle (2009), and Rowena Santos-Aquino (2012), as well as works by filmmakers like Rithy Panh, Josh Oppenheimer, and Errol Morris that employed reenactment techniques in innovative (and controversial) ways further moved the field of documentary studies from its grounding in the concept of indexicality as understood in its narrowly technological sense. This has proven to be an influential direction.

Yet consensus on what it is that grounds documentary theory if not indexicality, a weighty connection between image perceived and the real, remains elusive. Niels Niessen proposed a noteworthy turn on the concept in his 2011 publication in Screen, arguing that the index always embedded within it the dynamic between the film and the spectator’s way of seeing. The index, in his telling, emerges at the meeting point between the historical context of the sign’s creation, and the spectator’s subjective apprehension of this moment in their own space and time, laden as that moment is with iconic and symbolic contextual factors that facilitate indexical recognition.

Writing in 2017, with nearly two decades more perspective on digital filmmaking than the authors featured in Gaines and Michael Renov’s Collecting Visible Evidence (1999), Winston, Vanstone, and Chi revisited the position of the spectator unmoored from analog indexicality, and now more at the mercy of convincing digital fabrications of, for instance, mythical sea beasts like the Megalodon pedaled somewhat successfully as documentary fare by the Discovery Channel. More broadly, the authors claimed that the manipulability of digital imagery had indeed radically transformed documentary practice and cultural perceptions of what counted as historical evidence, even if not all filmmakers treated their moving images as endlessly malleable digital canvases. They pointed to Peirce’s writing on composite photography and icons, which he wrote “so completely substituted for their objects as hardly to be distinguished from them,” to suggest that Peirce’s theory accounted for the dual nature of photographs. They argued that photographs mediate between maker and viewer much like paintings, sculpture, and other forms of art imagery. “That is to say they are iconic as they are indexical,” the authors conclude.