The Historian and The Filmmaker: How Oral History is utilized in Documentary Film
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Presenting history on film is becoming increasingly popular in a society consumed by mass media. The increasing popularity of this medium in presenting history to the public has tested more so than ever before the relationship between the historian and the filmmaker and the role film plays in shaping the publics’ memory. This essay will begin by explaining in broad terms the relationship between the historian and the filmmaker, and the relationship between film and the written word. The essay will then outline the evolution of the documentary film and show how oral history has been utilized in this type of film. By examining the relationship between the historian, the filmmaker, oral history, and documentary film, it will be evident that documentary films are possibly the best means for recording the past.
The Historian/Filmmaker Relationship
The relationship between the historian and the filmmaker has traditionally been very apprehensive. A central reason for this apprehension lies in the fact that the historian and the filmmaker have different goals when examining and conveying history to the public. The historian’s central goal is to conduct research in order to arrive at some fundamental truth. The historian takes existing evidence, evaluates its importance, and provides insight into how it fits into the broader context history. Conversely, the filmmaker’s central goal is to engage the audience first and foremost, while at the same time creating a reality where the audience believes what they are seeing is true even if what they are seeing is not an absolute truth.1
Clearly the historian and the filmmaker have different goals when presenting history to the public. Although their goals may be different, the documentary film is precisely that, a documentary. The filmmaker has an ethical responsibility to accurately present historical evidence. However, the film must have structure and story development. This is often where the filmmaker takes liberty with how they choose to use historical evidence.2
The Historical Film and Written History
From the time when historians began to think and write about historical films, there has been the tendency to analyze the historical film in terms of the conventions of traditional history. This kind of approach ensures that history on film will be viewed as as a trivial representation of the past. The only way to prevent this is for historians to stop comparing films to their written counterparts, accepting the reality that films present history in a different way than written accounts.3
Films have a great deal to offer in the understanding of the past. Films, much like written history, tell the past as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. They leave the audience with a moral message, whether it is good or bad. Films portray history as the story of individuals, famous or ordinary, who have done extraordinary things or who have suffered some form of oppression or mistreatment. Films personalize, sensationalize, and emotionalize the past, allowing the audience to feel like they are actually experiencing the past. Films let audiences visualize the past and its buildings, landscapes, costumes, and artifacts. Finally, films show history as a process that often times written history cannot. The economics, politics, race, class, and gender of history all come together in the individuals and groups portrayed on film. Films should not be seen just in terms of whether all the moments can be confirmed, but rather in terms of whether a film can contribute something significant and meaningful to better understanding of the past. Many historians have a difficult time accepting the validity of history on film because of what is at stake: the collective memory of society with regards to the past.4
Film and Collective Memory
Films play an important role in shaping the collective memory of society. Among historians, it is argued that the filmmaker has a predisposition to forgo historical fact for drama and emotion. In a documentary film, footage is taken of an historical event or persons who witnessed or were affected by some event. It is the filmmaker who decides which images to shoot, for how long, and from what angles. The reasoning may be technical, logistical or ideological. The filmmaker then picks and chooses those images they feel are most relevant to the story they are trying to portray to the audience. Inevitably, the audience sees only those images, and those images play an important role in shaping the collective memory of an historical event. The danger lies in the fact that the audiences’ collective memory of the event has been shaped only by what the filmmaker has chosen to show them and not by an unbiased view of the historical event. This is a real concern for historians.5
Documentary Film Approach
Characteristically, documentary films usually are looked at in terms of their subjects, purposes, viewpoints, approaches, forms, production methods and techniques, and the sorts of experiences they offer audiences.
Subjects are what the documentary is about. Usually, they are specific, factual, and they often focus on public matters rather than private ones. The people, places, and events in them are authentic and generally modern of the time.
Purpose/viewpoint/approach is what the filmmaker is trying to articulate about the subjects of their film. The documentary filmmakers’ intention is to increase the understanding of the subjects of their film to the audience while trying to maintain the audiences’ interest and create sympathy for the subjects. The overall purpose of most documentary filmmakers is to record and interpret “actuality” on film in order to educate or influence the audience to hold some feelings or take some action in relation to the subjects.
Form relates to the process the filmmaker goes through including their original conception of the film, the sights and sounds chosen for the film, and the framework into which they are placed. Although most documentary films follow a chronological line and include people, plot character development is not a standard means of organization as it is in fiction films. The form of documentary film is primarily determined by subject, purpose, and approach.
Production method and technique refers to the way images are shot, sounds are recorded, and how the two are edited together. A fundamental requirement of the documentary is the use of real people who play themselves and not actors playing roles. Another requirement is to shoot the film at real locations and not on soundstages. Exceptions to these requirements do occur; however, any manipulation of images or sounds is generally limited to what is required to make the recording of them possible.
Finally, the audience response that documentary filmmakers generally seek is a visual experience that affects the attitudes of the audience and possibly pushes them to take action of some sort. The audience should be responding not so much to the filmmaker, but to the subject matter of the film. The end goal of the documentary filmmaker is to both please the audience while at the same time instructing them to take action.6
Documentary Film in the Beginning
It is generally accepted that the English-language documentary began with American Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North. The film captured the life of an Eskimo family living in the Canadian Arctic. Flaherty did not simply film the family but staged various scenes of fishing, hunting, and building igloos to carry the narrative. The success of the film prompted Flaherty to film Moana in 1926. Moana is a visual account of the daily events in the life of a young Polynesian and his family. Flaherty continued to document subjects for his films as he saw them and to an extent as they wanted to be portrayed. The film Moana caught the attention of a Scot named Robert Grierson who took what Flaherty had done with the documentary film and used Flaherty’s techniques to shoot the film Drifters in 1929. Grierson thought of the documentary film as “the creative treatment of actuality”. Both Flaherty and Grierson are primarily responsible for establishing the documentary film movement. The characteristics that are associated with the term documentary film as it is known today were firmly established by the mid 1930s as a result of the films produced by Flaherty and Grierson.7
Documentary Film in the 30s, 40s, and 50s
During the 1930s, the American documentary film became institutionalized and federally sponsored by the government, and non-government documentaries were starting to be produced as well. In 1933 the Workers’ Film and Photo League was formed in the U.S. to produce socially and politically engaging documentaries. The documentary film series March of Time which ran from 1935 through 1951 used reporting, on-location shots, and dramatic re-enactments to engage the American public. It was seen by over twenty million people in the U.S. alone. It most certainly shaped the collective memory of American Society during its sixteen year run. March of Time is just one example of the many types of institutionalized documentary films that were being produced during the 30s, 40s, and 50s that primarily focused on the social and political issues of the time.8
Documentary Film in the 60s and 70s
During the 1960s and 1970s, documentary films began the transition from primarily institutionalized films to films that were more independent in nature. With the advent of new technology available to filmmakers during this time, a new style of filming emerged. Cinéma vérité, or direct cinema as it is called in the U.S., was a style of documentary filmmaking that is characterized by the filmmakers’ desire to capture the reality and truth of the subject. Some argue that documentaries made before 1960 should not be called documentaries because they were fabricated, false, and staged. This is an argument that continues even with today’s documentary films. In any case, during the 60s and 70s in the United States, schools, libraries, colleges, film societies, and art theatres were all eager to make use of the new style of independent documentary film. These institutions provided the financial base for independent documentary filmmakers to explore a variety of subjects and issues that had not been previously explored. A new generation of documentary filmmaker emerged who had not lived through the experiences of the political, economic, and social issues of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. During this time, documentary filmmaking became a leading means for creative expression for more people than ever before. Two good examples of independent documentaries made during the 60s and 70s include: Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert Maysles’s film Primary (1960) and Albert and David Mayles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s film Gimme Shelter (1970).9
Documentary Film in the 80s
During the 1980s, as technology moved from film to video, documentary filmmaking became accessible to the masses. This accessibility for anyone to be able to pick up a camera and essentially create a documentary film, caused tension between the historian and the filmmaker. Some notable films during the 80s include: Ken Burn’s The Brooklyn Bridge (1982), Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Henry Hampton’sEyes on the Prize (1987), and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989). 10
Documentary Film in the 90s and 2000s
The 1990s continued with the traditions set forth by the early documentary films, but at the same time pushed forward and created new avenues in which the documentary film would be used among historians and filmmakers alike. This section will look at the mainstream documentary, the independent documentary, the theatrical documentary, and a specialized category of documentary called “large format”.11
Beginning in the 80s, one documentary filmmaker in particular who changed the way many thought about the documentary film and especially how many thought about the historical documentary film was Ken Burns. One of Burns' most praised and controversial films to date is his 1990 film The Civil War. It should be noted that Burns considers himself a historian first and a filmmaker second.12
The Civil War
Ken Burns, who is best known for his documentary films, is often classified as a filmmaker/historian. His eleven-hour exploration of the Civil War attracted a great deal of attention from the American public and historians alike. It was both praised as a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking and criticized by historians who felt it was a misrepresentation of one of the most important historical events in American history. Burns worked with twenty-four well known historians on the project, and many of them appeared in the film offering their insights.13
For the American public, Burns’ film became a phenomenon of popular culture and shaped the public’s collective memory of the Civil War. Burns’ interpretation of the Civil War raised important questions regarding “race and continuing discrimination, the roles of women and men in society, big government versus local government, and of the individual struggle for meaning and convictions in modern life”.14 All of these questions that Burns’ film addressed could be directly related to issues that were happening in modern society.
From a historian’s perspective, especially the younger generation, a new “bottom-up” approach to understanding the war had begun to take root among American scholars during the time of Burns’ film. This “bottom-up” approach placed an emphasis on social and cultural history rather than on the traditional fixation of “great men” with awe-inspiring ideals, and battle strategies and statistics. This new approach, which was being utilized by a number of historians, allowed historians to analyze and criticize the way he chose to use historical evidence and filming techniques to portray the Civil War.15 In any case, the visual and aural elegance of the The Civil War set new standards for the mainstream historical documentary. Some notable historical documentaries that followed in Burns’ footsteps include Stephen Ive’s Seabiscuit (2003) and Reporting America at War (2003). Both these films follow the historical documentary form made popular by Burns.16
American Independent Documentary
The American Independent Documentary is probably the best form to view how oral histories can be presented on film. This is evident after looking at the documentary film The Uprising of 34 (1995). This film is just one example out of many that shows how oral history as most people have come to think of the term can be used in documentary film. Some other notable independents include: Lauren Lazin’s Tupac Shakur: Ressurection (2003) and Robert Drew’s Two Men and a War (2005).17
The Uprising of 34
The Uprising of 34 is an account of the general textile strike that took place in 1934 in the South, which was possibly the largest labor protest in U.S. history. The filmmakers George Stoney and Judith Helfand interview ordinary working people and capture their recollections of the event. Unlike Burns’ film The Civil War, professional historians are not interviewed to dissect the historical event. By using interviews, letters, and never before seen photographs and newsreels, the filmmakers narrate the event as a three-part drama telling the event from the perspective of the ordinary people who lived it and how they remembered it. The Uprising of 34 has since played an important role in facilitating relations between workers and corporate leaders in the South.18
It can be argued that the theatrical documentary film has been around since Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was shown in theatres in 1922. However, it was not until the 80s that the theatrical documentary really took off, and the 90s, when the possibilities for documentary filmmakers to cash in and reach and affect a mass audience, truly matured. Two documentary films in particular that highlight this are Hoop Dreams (1994) and Fahrenheit 9/11(2004).
Hoop Dreams is a documentary that focuses on two inner city youth high school basketball players and the trials and tribulations they faced in the high-stakes world of high school athletics. The film was a product of film school graduates Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. The film uses direct cinema techniques and interviews to tell personal stories that have wide social implications and showed that social-issue documentary films could become successes at the box office. This success at the box office is one of the main reasons more attention has been placed on theatrical releases of documentary films since.19
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is about the relationship between the Bush and Bin Laden families. The intent of the film was to rally the American public together in order to vote President Bush out of office. Although this did not occur, what the film did do was influence the way in which many Americans thought about politics and the “war”. The film created such a buzz in the media that it literally pushed the documentary film form to the forefront in popular western culture.20
Large Format Documentary
Large format documentary films, or IMAX films as there are more commonly referred to, begun appearing in the 1970s in specially constructed IMAX theatres and are predominantly located in and around museums. Generally, IMAX films do not take strong social positions but rather show the magnificence of nature and the adventures of humankind. This is very reminiscent of the early documentary legacy of Flaherty. These types of films are very good at educating audiences on significant achievements in science and the natural wonders found in the world. Success of IMAX films varied throughout the 70s and 80s, but it was not until the film Everest (1998) that this type of documentary really came into its own.21
Everest is the story about a group of climbers who in 1996 successfully accented Mt. Everest just days after fellow climbers perished on the mountain. The film is the most financially successful IMAX film ever made, and some consider it the most financially successful documentary film ever made, if it is seemed in the constructs of the classic definition of documentary; that is in “actualities”. Like Flaherty and Grierson of the 1920s, IMAX films show the audience the world around them in a new way.22
Documentary Film in the Future
The internet is becoming increasingly vital to the documentary. Many documentary filmmakers and films have their own websites. Internet documentaries are slowing beginning to show up and surely will continue to show up in the future. The audience enthusiasm for theatrical documentaries continues, in large part to the flood of reality television shows that flood screens across America. This can be very frightening to the filmmaker and the historian who are concerned with “actualities” and facts. However, hope lies in a new form of documentary that was a result of the massive media response of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This unexpected tragedy was the most documented event in human history as ordinary citizens grabbed their video cameras and documented the event as it unfolded. This resulted in a new kind of documentary where hundreds of individually shot videos, from different perspectives, were taken and edited together to create the documentary film In Memoriam: New York 9/11/01. The editing, narration, music, and the number of videos shot from different perspectives, pushed the documentary film in a whole new direction.23
In the past, the number of documentary films being made was considered somewhat manageable. Now, with the variety of new technologies and techniques the number of documentary films is almost unimaginable. Aside from the traditional types of documentaries, there are now animated documentaries, computer-generated documentaries, internet documentaries, video diaries, investigative news documentaries, and all of the other hybrid forms they take. “Today, thirty English-language documentaries premiere on television, in theatres, or at festivals every month- not only do more people make documentaries, more people than ever before watch and talk about documentaries”.24
The history and evolution of documentary film is very fluid and open to interpretations by both filmmakers and historians. This is why there continues to be friction among both historians and filmmakers when documenting the past. In a society with ever increasing mass media and technological advances, we have seen that the documentary film has the potential to offer new historical evidence that written history alone could never. This can be accomplished by showing historians that film is not merely an alternative form for evoking, communicating, or translating written history, but rather of providing a new level of evidence for the historian. The oral histories captured in documentaries encourage and support a more comparative and reflexive approach to history that the written word alone cannot. In doing so, the relationship between the filmmaker and the historian, and how oral histories are utilized in documentary films offers up the prospect of enhancing the quality and credibility of history on film, thereby strengthening the relationship among historians and filmmakers.25
In the early recording of history, a memory would often be preserved as an oral tradition that would be carried on through generations of family members. Then the written word came along to provide a better means to document the past. With the advent of the audiotape, modern oral history was born and oral tradition was reintroduced in modern society. With the arrival of documentary film, the potential existed for history to be captured with both sound and images. Since then, the evolution of the documentary film has made the possibilities limitless for capturing history on film as a means to record the past.26
1 Nina Gilden Seavy, “Film and Media Producers: Taking History off the Page and Putting It On The Screen,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, eds. James B. Gardner and Peter S. Lapaglia (Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2006), 118-19.
2 Seavy, “Film and Media Producers,” 118-19.
3 Robert A. Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History (England: Pearson and Longman, 2006), 36.
4 Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History, 47.
5 William Guynn, Writing History in Film (New York: Rutledge, 2006), 166.
6 Betsy A. McLane and Jack C. Ellis, “Chapter One: Some Ways to Think About Documentary,” in New History of Documentary Film, (Film and Television Literature Index, EBSCOhost: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 1-3.
7 McLane, Chapter One: Some Ways to Think About Documentary, 3-4.
8 McLane, Chapter Six:Institutionalization: United States, 1930-41, 77-104.
9 McLane, Chapter Fourteen: Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité, 1960-197,208-57.
10 McLane, Chapter Sixteen: English-Language Documentary in the 1980s--Video Arrives,258-92.
11 McLane, Chapter Seventeen: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes,293-325.
12 McLane, Chapter Seventeen, 299-301.
13 Marcia Landy, The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 303.
14 Landy, The Historical Film, 306.
15 Landy, The Historical Film, 305.
16 Betsy A. McLane and Jack C. Ellis, “Chapter Seventeen: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes,” in New History of Documentary Film, (Film and Television Literature Index, EBSCOhost: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 301.
17 McLane, Chapter 17: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes, 309-15.
18 Bryant Simon, “ Review: The Uprising of 34 by George Stoney; Judith Helfand; Susanne Rostock,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 88, No. 3 (2001): 1201-1202.
19 Betsy A. McLane and Jack C. Ellis, “Chapter Seventeen: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes,” in New History of Documentary Film, (Film and Television Literature Index, EBSCOhost: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 315-18.
20 McLane, Chapter 17: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes, 319-20.
21 McLane, Chapter 17: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes, 321-22.
22 McLane, Chapter 17: English-Language Documentary in the 1990s and Beyond--Reality Bytes, 321-22.
23 McLane, Chapter 18: Some Other Ways to Think About Documentary, 321-22.
24 McLane, Chapter 18: Some Other Ways to Think About Documentary, 338.
25 Dan Sipe, “The Future of Oral History and Moving Images,”The Oral History Review, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (1991): 75-87.