One way to be truthful about the perspective and subjectivity of the filmmaker and historian is to invite audiences into the process of authorship, the selection of evidence, of character and plot, framing and ordering. The burgeoning genre of interactive film is one way to enable spectators access to the piecing together process of history. They can be given choices about what to watch and in what order and thereby have more control over what meaning they take from the information they choose to consume.
What a captivating possibility for anyone who is a child of the 70s or later, a reader of "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, and a player of video games, accustomed to choices in narrative. Even more important than the freedom it affords, interactivity can be a way to blur the straight story of the past. Or could it be a way to self-select the past in the same way that we increasingly self-select our political coverage and news? Maybe it allows us into an echo chamber with the past as we cobble meaning from what we want to watch?
Interactive online is exciting to me in the way it could allow the audience member to be placed in an analogous position to the historian at the word processor or the editor at the editing system, where evidence, story and character can be pieced together in a multitude of ways to tell different stories with numerous possible interpretations.
History is not inert, and interactivity in the hands and heads of the audience allows us to frame new relationships with the past in the present. It’s not clear yet how exactly this will happen. Interactive, online or via the App store, is still in its very early stages and one of the most pressing issues for interactive makers is how to engage audiences beyond the Youtube video length sweet spot of 2-3 minutes. There are not many earnest documentary filmmakers eager to capture their audience for only a minute or two and imagine what a historian would think about what they conceive of in 300+ dense pages boiled down to music video size? Talk about a deal breaker. Interactive is still finding its feet as creators decide what to do with it and audiences try to figure out, “am I supposed to click on that?” “Do I move my mouse there?”
With online and apps, film is in a period of testing and transition as filmmakers punch out the borders of the start-to-finish linear story model and find ways to invite audiences into content, creating new relationships and new meaning. I am interested in inviting audiences to sit next to me in the editing chair, but the question is, how?
Again back to high school. I had a wonderful English Lit teacher in grade 12 named Mr. Redford. In class one day he said to us about the Holocaust: “Don’t think, look what the Germans did, think, look what humans did.” When he said this I wasn’t really able to fully process it or accept it. I had watched all the Indiana Jones movies. What happened in WWII seemed like it could only be perpetrated by those jack-booted villains. As an adult with a better understanding of the world, of history, I know 1939-1945 was not an aberration but part of the cycle of what humans are capable of.
A week or so after the launch of the screen version of The Man in the High Castle, a counterfactual series about “what if the Axis won WWII”, I would like to talk about another film, one that renders counterfactuals irrelevant, a film that many have noted, shows us what would have been, if the Nazis had won: Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing”. A film that introduces us to thugs and perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965, a genocide backed by the West, in which the murderers have been lauded in the national mythology as freedom fighters and “free men” rather than the mass murderers that they are. The main character in the film, Anwar Congo, is a familiar one to anyone who knows Tony Soprano, but to see this life replicating art, and on this scale, is nothing short of paradigm shifting.
I would love to see the American Historical Review reconvene the historians from 1988 (see my blog from last week) to consider this film. It is a psychological study and a very meta documentary that could not have been made until our post-post-modern time. It features a film within a film, with a verité approach that acknowledges the director’s presence within the scenes with the participants. It is a singular film that does what history should: teach us about ourselves, plead with us to acknowledge the past, and encourage us to be wise enough to learn from others’ mistakes ("others" being those in the past) rather than from making our own.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s much-lauded “The Act of Killing” is a powerful and prime example of what documentary can do with, and for, history, that written history cannot. It proves the importance of audiovisual history. The fact that his approach cannot be formally replicated, or become a sub-genre of documentary, is part of the film’s brilliance. To spend a decade in the making, to have sanctioned killers make buffoonish art from their violence, is not a structure that could be repeatable without being “An Act of Plagiarism”. Oppenheimer’s film shows us the possibilities for documentary and history to grapple with the most difficult lesson of history: the distance between what it is to be human and to be humane.
History surely goes back as far back as talking. Having the ability to talk about the past, and adapt, is something some scientists have conjectured separated Homo Sapiens from Neanderthals. Although there are some famous names from way back that we would consider early historians: Thucydides and Herodotus among them, historians as a professional class didn’t actually emerge until the late 18th century in Germany. Over the next hundred years, history as a professional discipline was codified and incorporated into university systems throughout Europe and North America. If historians as professionals are new on the scene, (relative to the scope of history), is it important to consult them, or worry about them, when we make films? I think it is.
Why? Well, the professionalization of anything is accompanied by standards of practice. Since history sprang up as a profession, many of those historians have spent a great deal of time philosophizing about the context and meaning of such an endeavor. So why would filmmakers making works about the past not consult the very people whose job it is to think about it?
It follows that if filmmakers should consider the perspective of historians that historians should consider the possibilities and pitfalls of history on film.
In 1988, the American Historical Association published a “forum issue” on history in film in the(ir) American Historical Review. To date, it is still one of the most enlightening and thorough explorations of history and cinema from the perspective of historians. The most notable contributions were by Robert Rosenstone, (callback to the blog last week), an established historian who had extensive experience in adapting his work for the screen, and Hayden White the post-modern historiography heavyweight who shook up the world of history in the 1970s by calling out historians for writing and conceiving of history in a manner that, as he saw it, was based on 19th century narrative tropes, and therefore was more storytelling than science. Other authors in the journal are less interested in history on film, viewing it as a novelty or something that can only be carefully unpacked in the history classroom. Rosenstone, however, provides constructive ideas and cautions, while White considers all history so tentatively related to past events that he has no problem in accepting filmic depictions as part of the stew of narrative frameworks that dance with the past.
Hegel, writing at the time of the emergence of academic history in Germany, points to poetry and prose as the two ways history is communicated, and he also considers the poetic genre as one that invites a level of abstraction that is more transparent about the historian’s relationship to the past. Following Hegel, both scholars cited experimental, or poetic, depictions of the past that foreground the present and the artist’s hand in the work, as a useful way to approach the past on film. One such example, that is oft-mentioned in the journal's articles, and is referenced on the cover, (see above) is Jill Godmilow’s “Far From Poland” (1984). Godmilow set out to make a film about the Solidarity movement in Poland but she was denied a Visa to enter the country and decided to forge ahead, making the film at home in New York City, using a pastiche of reenactment, fictional scenes and archival footage. This was all structured around a very heady, intensely meta and subjective point of view, as Jill Godmilow, filmmaker and character, struggled to make her film. “Far From Poland” was loved by many theorists of history and documentary. But 1984 was a while ago now, and as a professor I have shown the film to undergrads, and I have registered the mix of piercing boredom and bewilderment on their faces. What seems to make the biggest impression on them about the film is how everyone chain-smoked in the 1980s.
So my question is: these days, how do we address historiographical concerns, locate the subjectivity of the maker, and also make something that the average 21 year old can sit through?
Some suggestions next week...
At university I was on the swim team and an arts student. I remember being eyed cautiously from across the hot tub, after practice, as alien, an “artsy” person. In my Creative Writing class I was “the jock”.
When the Creative Writing students looked at me I think that they saw Emilio Estevez from the Breakfast Club, the swimmers saw Alley Sheedy. But I didn’t identify with anyone in the Breakfast Club! Most people like to figure out who is with them, and who isn’t. It's linked to a reptilian sense of security, I’d guess, and a trait that should be tackled in the name of self-improvement.
Historians and filmmakers are no different. Historians can feel that their expertise and turf are being invaded when non-professionals of any kind tackle history. And filmmakers rarely show much interest in what historians do, beyond alerting them to, ideally: a Great Man who: refuses the call, is incited, then conflicted, conflicted-internally, conflicted externally… biggest conflict of all, resolution, roll credits. From history, filmmakers actually seek myth, and the more a Great Man can be like Luke Skywalker, (or Han) the better. For many filmmakers, to engage the complexity with which historians approach their subjects, even their choice of subjects, is a direct route to audience alienation, obscurity and the back up plan career. Historians would probably peg the average filmmaker as the Judd Nelson type, and for filmmakers, historians would be Anthony Michael Hall.
Robert Rosenstone is a historian whose work has been turned into both fiction and documentary films: the Warren Beatty epic Reds, maybe you’ve heard of it? And the documentary, The Good Fight, probably you haven’t. He worked with both productions as a consultant and he has subsequently written several articles and books about the experience and the “use and abuse of history” in film.
Rosenstone has a great deal to say about history in fiction and non-fiction film. Because my project is a documentary, I will focus on the latter, and leave the Warren Beatty’s and Julian Fellowes’ of the world to do their thing for the time being.
Here is what Rosenstone has to say about the essential problem of putting history into documentary form:
"Th[e] decision to sacrifice complexity to action, one that virtually every documentarist would accept, underlines a convention of the genre: the documentary bows to a double tyranny-which is to say, an ideology-of the necessary image and perpetual movement."
Agreed. So what to do?
My project goal is in many ways the same at The Breakfast Club’s, to see past clichéd divides to shared perspectives, in this case, to incorporate some of the context and thinking from history and historiography into documentary explorations of the past, while still making something accessible to regular documentary filmgoers with typical, (non-avant-garde) expectations.
Next week: more on what historians have to say about history in documentary form and filmmakers whose work answers their challenge.
If you have ever broken up with someone, only to hear from friends that you got dumped, then you know how unreliable the witnesses to history are.
Conventions used in films to tell tidy, linear stories about the past have bothered me for about as long as I can remember. For many years I’ve wondered about ways that filmmakers could signal to audiences about the unsteady platform we teeter upon when we endeavor to show what happened before. There has to be a way to foreground the present in the past without completely abandoning narrative, since I agree with Robert McKee, it is the way most of us make sense of pretty much everything.
In the 1970s historiography exploded with critiques of the way that historians present the past. That was a while ago now and yet those conversations have not really penetrated the film world where filmmakers continue to construct historical narratives in ways that historians would label as so very nineteenth century. This puts filmmakers, embarrassingly, a couple centuries behind… or at least pre-Altamont (1969), stuck in the past they seek to re-present.
Thanks to the very good people at the Cinema Research Institute at NYU I have the privilege to blog for the CRI about my project this year, which aims to do the following:
1. Consider ideas about history from historians that could inform filmmakers’ creative choices
2. Explain my process of making a documentary about history that seeks to deconstruct some of the conventions of audiovisual history
3. Create a live interactive experience from the raw materials of my documentary
4. Take interactive ideas from the digital space and put them into the live performance space
5. Explore Live Documentary as a way to create unique cinema experiences
I will explore the following questions:
1. How can we use cinematic language to express different historical interpretations?
2. Can we reflect postmodern perspectives without alienating almost everyone?
3. Can new expressions of film online be reincorporated into the live environment?
4. How can filmmakers tell the “truth” about the past?
5. Is live cinema a viable way for independent filmmakers to reach new audiences?
6. Can we reengage film audiences in theatre spaces in new ways?
I will blog weekly focusing on the following topics:
Process – explaining my progress in making a film that engages history theory and transforming that film into a live documentary performance.
Ideas – exploring ideas from history as they pertain to storytelling, and the film world as they pertain to history.
Innovators – Monthly features about innovators in the fields of history, film and live audiovisual performance.
You can check out my websites here:
Thanks for reading and hope you will be back to check out my blog next Monday.