Taking history back from the “storytellers”
About a month ago, a group of moving image archivists that participate in AMIA-L, one of my favorite listservs, started talking about the problem of poorly-produced (and poorly-thought-out) reenactments, and how they had grown to infect historical documentaries. I was on vacation and couldn’t participate in a timely way, but the clear desert air incubated a bit of a rant, a slightly revised version of which I’m now sharing.
Please bear in mind that when I say “we,” I mean moving image archivists.
While there seems to be agreement that the reenactment trend has spread way too far, I think there’s a deeper problem facing historically/archivally oriented docs, and it’s actually something we can help to solve.
Some of the most interesting documentary films take their structures from organic phenomena like the hours of the day, or the trajectory of a river from source to mouth. Others are essays that follow a structured thought process. Still others divide into sequences or parts that need to be understood and compared as discrete units for the film to generate meaning in the viewer. In fact, there are nearly infinite possible documentary structures, of which I think we’ve only seen a small fraction. By contrast, the mainstream documentary focuses on what’s now called “storytelling,” a highly traditional representational strategy that in recent years has come to imply the omnipresence of characters (good and evil), a narrative arc and a conventional act-based structure in which seemingly insurmountable problems are frequently solved.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with storytelling, whatever it may be, and not all stories are bad. What’s wrong is the assumption, which has become not only pervasive but compulsory, that documentaries need characters, that the narrative arc must reign supreme, and that we’re obliged to show people wrestling with and resolving problems. I’ve sat with PBS gatekeepers and heard them refer to programs as “stories,” not films or shows. Ultimately this insults potential audiences by assuming they’re only able to ingest a limited narrative menu. Is it really true that, when it comes to media, “the best surprise is no surprise?”
The vernacular language of documentaries is freezing in place. If I tried to pitch The River today, they’d say “A river? Where’s the story? You need to find characters with great stories who live along the banks.” If I sought money for The Man with the Movie Camera, I’d be sent back to research more about the cameraman’s inner life and emotions, and to find or invent interpersonal (rather than interframe) conflict. Now, there are indeed essay-based makers, like Adam Curtis, perhaps Errol Morris, and many others (forgive my lack of knowledge, but I’m not a Netflix guy). Sam Green is now making a film on utopia that I think is not shrinking from ideas, even though it does follow a few people around. And then there’s James Benning. But it’s just harder to make different work and have it seen.
So, where do archives come in? The last 20 years have witnessed the emergence of new kinds of documentation, such as home movies and other unofficial materials. Much of this kind of imagery reflects personal historical perspectives, unlike other kinds of archival material that emanate from institutions, governments, studios and corporations. This is great, but what’s happening (especially with amateur material) is that film is being used to construct histories that emphasize personal experience, that rely on the depiction of struggle and transformation at an individual level, and that constitute “stories” in a narrow rather than broad sense. I’m not advocating socialist realism here, just criticizing the reduction of world-historical events and phenomena to the story of “a day in the life of my cranky grandfather who survived the war and is just about to get evicted.”
Many of us who collect or take care of moving images and sounds feel that original materials tell pretty good stories on their own. Aside from some courageous DVD collections of uncut archival films, a supplement here and there, and several sketchy sites presenting downloadable archival materials, most original materials don’t reach the public without being run through the storytelling Cuisinart. While context is essential to really understand and work with most moving images, overbearing narration, emotionally invasive music and highly personalized visions of history don’t constitute context. Bits and pieces from our collections are being woven into works that don’t really speak to the value of their components.
So, where do we come in? I propose two ideas.
The first is easy. Let’s put original, unedited archival material out in the world in such a way that it competes with documentaries. This isn’t going to kill our stock footage income, because producers and directors always feel they can improve on reality by imposing structures of their design, and they’ll still come around. But it will insure that audiences can see original documents without the imposition of artificial layers of narrativity. (Plus, I have always wondered how archives can ethically let historical mediamakers use clips without making the original works from which the clips come available to anyone who wants to see the complete continuity. When someone cites a passage of text or a still image, there’s a powerful implication that someone can check the citation themselves. We don’t make this easy.)
Archives are part of the system of cultural production. So are archivists. Which brings me to a second suggestion.
We have all noted that the cost of production and distribution is going down quickly, even though it isn’t zero. Why then aren’t archivists making more documentaries, and why isn’t production seen as an integral archival mission? Why on earth do we observe invisible barriers of specialization that cause producers (whose interests are often fleeting and superficial) to become the chief interpreters and contextualizers of our collections?
Librarians write books, too. Museum curators make text and media. Why don’t we make more movies? Everyone else in the world feels entitled to.
As more and more archivists become curators and preservers of digital files, and as working with physical moving image materials becomes an unjustly underfunded artisanal specialty, we may have to figure out what exactly it is that we do. I suggest we consider becoming moving image authors too.
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