Cinema and Media Studies Reenactment in Cinema and Media
Megan Carrigy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0355


The reenactment is a representational form organized around the reproduction of preexisting situations, actions, and events. The use of reenactments predates the emergence of technically reproducible media. Numerous examples of commemorations, ceremonies, and religious celebrations around the globe, including, for example, passion plays originating in the medieval era depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as a wide variety of state-sponsored spectacles, demonstrate that the reenactment has a long history across a range of cultural forms. Reenactments have been deployed in film since the very first decades of the cinema as well as in pre-cinematic forms such as magic lantern displays, which emerged in the seventeenth century, and panoramas, which became popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The earliest surviving film examples are two staged actualities, Ambulance Call and Ambulance at the Accident, registered to the Edison Company in 1897. Since then, reenactments have become associated with a range of fiction and nonfiction film and television genres and continue to span a variety of media and institutional contexts. These include, but are not limited to, newsreels, historical dramas, docudramas, documentaries, reality television, ethnographic filmmaking, forensic architecture, virtual reality, gaming, fandom, museum exhibits, video installations, medical training and medical research, criminal investigations, and legal proceedings. While reenactments have taken on diverse manifestations across media forms, one of the characteristics that connect them is the imperative to ensure that their emphasis on the reproduction of preexisting situations, actions, and events is communicated to audiences: to function successfully, reenactments need to be recognized as reenactments. That being said, reenactments can be used to serve various purposes. For example, emphasis on the research, corroboration, and verisimilitude of situations, actions, and events depicted in a reenactment may be a means to make claims about the accuracy of a certain version of events. Reenactments may also be deployed reflexively to contest the authenticity and authority of other’s claims. Reenactments can be used for investigative purposes: to test out a hypothesis; replicate or simulate a specific set of results; or reconstruct the events of a crime from its traces. They can also produce entertaining, even horrifying, spectacles designed to be consumed. They can provide opportunities for role playing that facilitate engagement with situations, individuals, or groups. Given this mutability across different cultural forms, it is necessary to turn to scholarship drawn from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives to account for the reenactment’s many manifestations in cinema and media.

General Overviews

Since the early 2000s, a growing number of publications have attempted to conceptualize the scope of reenactment studies. Historians have been at the forefront of this work, putting together edited collections that address a wide range of media and cultural forms. Agnew and Lamb 2004 and McCalman and Pickering 2010 bring together historians and other scholars working with an eclectic variety of case studies under the umbrella of historical reenactment. Agnew, et al. 2019 constitutes a major outcome of this long-term project. The contributors to Fauser and Figueroa 2020 focus on music, making connections between commemoration, reenactment, and trauma. De Groot 2016 explores the consumption of heritage across a range of popular media forms. King 2012 draws on perspectives associated with the post-humanities to think about the epistemologies of transmedia storytelling. This approach resonates with the collection Dupre, et al. 2022, which fosters an interdisciplinary discussion of the conceptualization of performative research practices across humanities and social sciences. Carrigy 2021 builds on frameworks drawn primarily from cinema and media studies, especially film theory, to interrogate how reenactments are manifesting across a variety of genres and institutional contexts. Bruzzi 2020 focuses on contemporary screen media with case studies drawn from documentary, docudrama, historical fiction, true crime, and television drama. Margulies 2019 explores a range of films that involve subjects reenacting events associated with their own lives.

  • Agnew, Vanessa, and Jonathan Lamb, eds. Special Issue: Extreme and Sentimental History. Criticism 46.3 (Summer 2004).

    This journal special issue works to broaden how scholars, especially historians, think about reenactment in relation to a diverse range of practices and genres. There is a significant focus on television, including case studies drawn from reality television, docudramas, and television documentaries.

  • Agnew, Vanessa, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies: Key Terms in the Field. New York and London: Routledge, 2019.

    This handbook brings together a diverse community of scholars to showcase interdisciplinary approaches to the emerging field of reenactment studies. There are forty-seven entries, each outlining a key term, many of which are relevant to cinema and media studies.

  • Bruzzi, Stella. Approximation: Documentary, History and the Staging of Reality. New York and London: Routledge, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203129487

    Explores multiple manifestations of the reenactment in contemporary, post-millennium film and media from the perspective of the notion of approximation, conceptualized as the evocation of subject, event, or act that is achieved by bringing together a constellation of different points of view.

  • Carrigy, Megan. The Reenactment in Contemporary Screen Culture. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781501359354

    This single-authored monograph explores the challenge of how to identify and conceptualize diverse manifestations of the reenactment in contemporary screen media. It focuses on case studies drawn from a range of fiction and nonfiction film and television genres—including documentaries, biopics, remakes, and police procedural television—as well as other institutional contexts such as legal proceedings.

  • De Groot, Jerome. Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315640754

    Conceptualizes heritage in the context of popular culture, with a focus on consumption. Discusses a range of media genres and formats, including gaming, Internet genealogy, historical films, social media, and YouTube. The chapters in Part 3, “Performing and Playing History,” are most explicitly concerned with reenactment, but it permeates other aspects of the book as well.

  • Dupre, Sven, Anna Harris, Julia Kursell, Patricia Lulof, and Maartje Stols-Witlox, eds. Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022.

    This volume brings together scholars who engage with a range of disciplinary perspectives, from musicology, art history, archeology, anthropology, and ethnography to the history of science and technology, to think through a broad spectrum of performative research methods in the humanities and social sciences. The use of the term “re-enactment” is situated in relation to the traditions associated with other “re-terms” across different fields.

  • Fauser, Annegret, and Michael A. Figueroa, eds. Performing Commemoration: Musical Reenactment and the Politics of Trauma. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020.

    This collection explores the use of music within a range of global commemorative practices from across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Case studies include protest music, music videos, film soundtracks, and museum exhibits. Contributors focus on making connections between reenactment and the politics of trauma, drawing on interdisciplinary frameworks associated with film, performance, sound studies, musical studies, ethnography, and archival and historical research.

  • King, Katie. Networked Reenactments: Stories Transdisciplinary Knowledge Tells. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1198wfj

    This single-authored monograph considers a variety of approaches to thinking through the production and communication of knowledge in a transmedia context. Case studies include examples from science-styled television documentary forms, museum exhibits, and television fandom.

  • Margulies, Ivone. In Person: Reenactment in Postwar and Contemporary Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190496821.001.0001

    This single-authored monograph traces the phenomenon of subjects participating in cinematic reenactments of aspects of their own lives. Case studies include Love in the City (1953), The Human Pyramid (1960), Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Shoah (1985), and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003).

  • McCalman, Iain, and Paul Pickering, eds. Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    This collection brings together historians, art historians, novelists, and literary scholars to define, historicize, and conceptualize reenactment across several genres, institutions, and industries, including multiple case studies drawn from cinema and television. Several contributors focus on the role of reenactment in reality television, making connections with the heritage industry and historical tourism.

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