Group of Cree men at Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, 1884. Image: NA-382-1 courtesy of Glenbow Archives. Questions this image raises: How do we tell these people's stories in documentary form with care, detail and critical distance? Who would each one identify with in The Breakfast Club? Does anyone ever identify with the principal? Note: Mean Girls in the background.
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.