Editor's Note: this piece originally appeared on PlayingSoldierthemovie.com.
In documentary filmmaking, there is no such thing as a “fly on the wall”. In other words, a filmmaker is never an invisible observer. In reality, a filmmaker’s presence and nearly everything one does will affect how people react, what they will share, and how. They may not share at all. This project was difficult for several reasons. Reenactors are suspicious of people from outside of the hobby. I quickly learned that there was a lot of resistance to talking with media or in front of cameras. By the time I arrived, other filmmakers had already made films that reenactors found disparaging, and unsurprisingly, people would now expect the same from me.
I decided that rather than try to make a polarized highly-editorialized film, I would try to understand and objectively portray reenacting. I knew that’s impossible to do one hundred per cent, but that I would be as objective as I could, even when I strongly disagreed, even when I had irreconcilable ideas. And, I did have a few of those.
Reenactments are delicate bubbles that resemble a different time period. Participants labor to create and maintain that illusion. This shared vision is highly regarded and easily destroyed. So modern anachronistic things like cell phones and yes, video cameras, are gravely frowned upon.
To this end I bought a period correct uniform online and began my journey. Since I had sculpture skills, I created a plastic shell that looked exactly like an old newsreel camera from the 40’s. Inside this shell I placed my video camera. I did this so as not to offend. I did not do it to deceive. In fact, I proudly told everyone what I was doing and showed them my handiwork. I received pats on the back for doing so. Now my presence on the “battlefield” would not offend. Two characters in my film (photographers) did not assimilate as well. By the time they stopped attending they reported having received violent physical threats.
The most common question I get is “who plays the Germans?”. The quick and easy answer is “a lot of people”. I’ve met people who simply have a strange hobby without any fascist ideaology. I’ve met people who have served in our country’s armed forces in wars. I’ve even met people who are fairly left-leaning politically. Now, to be sure, the amount of left-leaning people in this hobby are a small piece of the pie-chart.
Most people range from centrist views or right-leaning views all the way up to and including extreme-right wing views. In other words, I’ve also met exactly who you would expect to meet wearing a nazi uniform in public. I met my “first ever” holocaust denier at a reenactment. I knew that they existed but never before had I experienced a human being trying to convince me, with a straight face, that the holocaust was not an actual historical fact.
Allow me to tell you that it is a shocking and eye-opening experience to see someone do this with actual conviction in their eyes. Not to mention that for a self-professed “historian” to do so is, to say the least, unsettling. I had originally thought that a holocaust denier must be so convinced that they are right, that they would be willing to tell anyone their ideas. I could not have been more wrong. Those with extreme-right wing views would talk about their views at length. That is... until a camera appeared. They absolutely did not want their views recorded for public consumption. This threw a monkey wrench into my plans. I found it challenging trying to make a film that was connected to World War Two when I was completely unable to talk about these ideas. I also knew that if I really pressed the issue, not only would I fail, but word would get around that I was not “playing nice” and people would stop talking to me at all. In the end I thought “This is actually a no-brainer. I don’t have to inform people that there are neo-nazis who enjoy dressing as nazis. People can infer this without great effort on my part.” So, rather than over explain a thing like that...I did not explain it at all.
In the end I focussed the film on two themes. The first theme was the odd, sometimes conflicted, relationships that people have with their real life personas and their weekend reenacting personas. Nearly everyone I filmed was trying to portray a persona that was at once totally foreign and simultaneously perfectly matched. While purporting to tell me about history, people told me so much more about themselves. As one character said “history is a personal thing”.
The second theme I wanted to document was the ill-fated endeavor to have a “reenactor moment”. A reenactment is the child of theater married with war. Much of this theater takes place in the minds of individuals. They strive for that rare, fleeting, and lucky moment that occurs when a person loses themselves inside the very illusion of wartime that they have created. Reenactors report “feeling like I was there”, one even said “By the time you realize you are having a reenactor moment, it’s over”. The task of creating and maintaining another time period in its entirety is impossible, yet reenactors never tired of trying.
Regardless of whether that passion was expressed admirably or was horribly misguided, I always found it compelling.
- Ed Gendron
Ed Gendron is an independent artist, photographer, and filmmaker who currently resides in New Haven, CT. Initially a painter and printmaker, Ed was inspired by the stories of people whose portraits he painted, so he embarked on documentary film and photography as a way to connect with people and tell their stories. His documentary Playing Soldier (2017) was an Official Selection the 2018 NHDocs: New Haven Documentary Film Festival.