While “personalization” 1930s-style and verité (plus the Loud family) definitely have all contributed, my own experience has led me to posit a different ancestry to this paralyzing trend. On one hand, I think it is a perverse morph of the new social histories that came to dominate academic and popular-historical …
While “personalization” 1930s-style and verité (plus the Loud family) definitely have all contributed, my own experience has led me to posit a different ancestry to this paralyzing trend. On one hand, I think it is a perverse morph of the new social histories that came to dominate academic and popular-historical discourse starting in the 1970s, with their focus on daily life and personal experience as opposed to institutional and “great-men” histories. The social-issue docs of the 1970s and the 1980s feel as if they occupy an uneasy space between archival footage (often montage sequences cut to faux period music) and interviews, and over time we see a deemphasis on documents and a foregrounding of testimonies, interviews and interview techniques. The “witnesses” in Reds. The use of spoken text in Ken Burns and other high-profile docs that reach back further than the moving image era. But as a close observer of doc production in New York, I felt the turn towards narrative and “compelling characters” happen with the mainstreaming of independent documentary, principally with Independent Focus and POV, both originated out of WNET. The gatekeepers for these shows, which originally acquired and only later (if I’m not mistaken) commissioned docs, tended to mostly base acquisition criteria on a film’s ability to express the admixture of “independent voice” and acceptability to a TV audience. I don’t necessarily think this was poor thinking, but it did become entrenched, and those of us who cared deeply about the presentation of historical and archival documents found that the bankable frames for doing so became much more specific and smaller. And now to slip into full anecdotal mode, when I was Director of Archival Development at HBO between late 1990 and 1995, a title that sounds much more imposing than the projects I was able to realize, the rigged lottery of office assignments placed me right between the offices of Sheila Nevins (one of the most influential mothers of HBO documentary and contemporary documentary in general) and her associate Cis Wilson, who collectively commissioned many respected independent filmmakers’ work for HBO. I was therefore privy to frequent and high-modulation messaging between the two offices flanking me, and heard much detail about ongoing projects in development and production and HBO’s relationships with filmmakers. That experience, plus time spent hanging around edit rooms upstairs trying to get HBO-commissioned filmmakers pay for the copies of my Footage 89/91 reference books they thought I had supplied out of altruism, gave me a vivid sense of how collaboratively docs were made at HBO, and how much discussions between suits and makers focused on story and character development. Story was everything. Speculatively, I’d say that this trickled up from POV to HBO, but I’m sure the model was more complicated. And I cringe at my naivete — I thought all you needed to do to make a documentary was turn the camera on, shoot and later piece together what you got; or, alternatively, collect all the footage you could and then work some Vertovian magic. But while I try to do better by my students, I’ve been railing about overnarrativization for over ten years.