The full question: is it possible to remake a documentary as a documentary? We know, thanks to Werner Herzog and others, that you can redo a documentary's story as a dramatic feature. But let's imagine instead that the premise behind your favorite classic non-fiction film is lifted and re-applied to a new non-fiction work with the same title. 'Hoop Dreams' following a new set of high school basketballers. 'Salesman' documenting today's very different breed of door-to-door merchants (of bibles again or something else). 'The Thin Blue Line' investigating another murder. 'Primary' observing a 2012 Democratic (or Republican) primary election. 'Nanook of the North' presenting the life of the Inuit today.
Actually, 'Nanook' could simply be redone shot for shot. The original isn't exactly a document of an Eskimo of the time so much as how the people used to be, prior to European influence. But then, the remake would be even less qualifiable as documentary than Robert Flaherty's 1922 version. It is an interesting film to bring up, though, because it was already remade in a sense. In two senses, as a matter of fact. The classic we know of now was in a way a redo of an earlier film Flaherty was working on but accidentally destroyed. After 'Nanook' became a huge international hit, Paramount Pictures pretty much asked him to remake the same film (literally they requested "another 'Nanook'"), only in Samoa. The result, 'Moana,' doesn't look or feel the same, however. This is partly why it bombed.
The case with Paramount and Flaherty's early attempt shows how impossible it is to exactly remake documentary, because real-life circumstances and paths are not repeatable with different subjects, unless altogether forced. It is also just basically a situation in which a formula or idea is employed anew. As with fiction, for non-fiction this isn't necessarily definable as remake. We could say the concept behind 'Hoop Dreams' has been rehashed over and over with other inner-city stories centered on boxing or poetry or any number of potentially uplifting activities. Underdog sports dramas aren't all "remakes" of 'Rocky' or 'Slap Shot,' really. So is it just about the retained title? Even something called 'Hoop Dreams' about two separate black teens in Chicago aiming to play pro basketball could -- no would -- be unrecognizable compared to the original.
That might be an interesting experiment to try, just as in theory it seems a good idea to begin other 'Up' franchises in other parts of the world modeled on Michael Apted's popular ongoing British series (originating in 1964 with the intended-to-be-stand-alone TV special 'Seven Up!' and last continued in 2005's '49 Up'). Direct copies, officially linked, can be found documenting the lives of people in Japan, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. The U.S. version is certainly classifiable as a remake, having started with 1991's 'Age 7 in America,' in which Meryl Streep introduces the program as adapted from the UK-set program. These proper remakes are all in fact produced for Britain's Granada Television, like Apted's, as is a new UK version that started a decade ago titled '7UP 2000.'
It's worth pointing out that the most recent of the U.S. installments, '21 Up America,' was directed by Christopher Quinn, who also directed the 2006 Sundance-winner 'God Grew Tired of Us.' The reason of interest is that I've seen writers actually refer to this documentary as a remake of Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk's less-seen 2003 film 'Lost Boys of Sudan.' But this is merely a matter of two different works documenting the same subject matter, the amazing treks made by the refugees known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." They don't follow the same people -- Quinn's film features three men, Mylan and Shenk's only two, and there were tens of thousands of these guys in total (Dave Eggers' book 'What Is the What' is about another one). They're no more the same film than all the Iraq War films are the same.
Last week's Doc Talk column, in which I discussed the concept of response documentaries, I mentioned the DOC NYC selection 'Five Weddings and a Felony,' recognizing that its director, Josh Freed, thought of it somewhat as a modernized take on Ross McElwee's classic 'Sherman's March' (it could also be seen as a male-tinged remake of Nina Davenport's 'Always a Bridesmaide,' which Freed also acknowledges). The new film definitely mimics the first-person narration style of McElwee and similarly chronicles the director's involvement with numerous women. But it lacks the bigger elements and themes of 'Sherman's March,' particularly its examination of a particular place. And one very notable difference is in its (verbal) explicitness regarding Freed's sexual activity, an aspect McElwee for the most part avoids with his film. Even without using the same title or getting approval from McElwee, Freed's film is not technically a remake. The subjectivity involved for such a personal work is reason enough to understand this.
Yet, there is hardly a complete definition for what constitutes a remake, with fiction or documentary. The only real measure might be intent. Freed has somewhat confirmed such intention to me, though perhaps not in official, public terms. For that kind of commitment, I can only point to a project in the works by Rob Lemkin, co-director of this year's incredibly powerful documentary 'Enemies of the People.' Lemkin told indieWIRE in August he is making a short non-fiction film about soldiers blinded in combat that he wholeheartedly considers to be a remake of Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1971 short documentary 'Bylem Zolnierzem.' I contacted Lemkin to find out the extent of how this will be done and he explained:
"It will use the exact structure of Kieslowski's film (possibly even down to the length of each shot, but in colour not b/w and with new music) but it will feature American soldiers talking in English about being blinded in current and recent American wars. So it will be a meeting of investigative journalism and art."
Of course, few people here are familiar with the original (I admit I've never seen it), and given that Lemkin's will also be a short film, the audience for his version is likely to be small, as well. Hopefully the intrigue of seeing an admitted documentary remake will open up some of the interest. And perhaps Lemkin can be a pioneer or otherwise encourage more attempts at the idea, maybe even something of feature-length. Also possibly leading us on the path to official documentary remakes is Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad, whose new film 'The Good Life' is about a formerly wealthy mother and daughter now living in squalor in Portugal. According to a profile in indieWIRE, Mulvad did not outright produce or market the film as a "a Danish 'Grey Gardens,'" though she is embracing the label easily applied to it and recognizes the Maysles' inspiration.
I leave you with one last complicated example: Stephen Marshall's 'This Revolution' is a hybrid work starring Rosario Dawson and Brendan Sexton III that was purposefully shot amidst the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City in order to feature real documentary footage of the characters among actual protesters (and, unintentionally, footage of the filmmaker and stars' actual arrest during the protest). Officially it's only credited as an homage to Haskell Wexler's 'Medium Cool,' similarly a hybrid set and shot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The fictional plots are different, sure, but I view Marshall's film as a sure remake of Wexler's, primarily in terms of the non-fiction element.
That's a rare case, though, in which certain events, circumstances and outcomes could be fairly predicted and expected to be the same as they were for the earlier film. The fact that Wexler even knew he could pull off something like 'Medium Cool' was due to expectations of what the city would be like during the DNC. This foresight could never happen with many kinds of documentaries that end up what and how they are because of unanticipated and chance occurrences, whether as minor as the outcome of a game or, particularly when, it's something monumentally bad that has happened, like a murder at a concert. You definitely could not intentionally remake 'Gimme Shelter,' for instance, and for obvious moral reasons you shouldn't want to.