I originally developed this activity back in 2003 when I first had class access to digital video cameras to go along with my video editing software. I think the inspiration for the activity came from seeing a bad History Channel documentary on Lenin which gave a particularly dismissive account of Lenin as a political theorist. What impressed me about the documentary technique was how the impression of balance and objectivity was achieved by careful editing of different historians saying similar things (in front of bookcases of course) in quick succession. Watching the documentary, I could think of a number of other historians who would disagree with the central thesis of the programme but they did not appear. Documentary, like great narrative history, has to tell a story that is more or less a contrivance of the author/director. With the Schama’s Citizens you know you are getting (only) one historian’s take on the French Revolution and as readers (often fellow historians) we have been trained to analyse the historical and literary techniques Schama employs and to expect that his (usually very highly qualified assertions) are scrupulously annotated. But with Schama’s History of Britain, his purpose, our expectations and the documentary outcomes are very different. The audience of ‘our expectations’ is no longer the ‘producer’ audience of professional/amateur historians but the ‘consumer’ audience of a public that expects to be entertained and that will change channels if they are not. Of course, this has significant implications for the content of the ‘history’ presented and clearly, as in the case of the Lenin documentary, dissenting voices would only complicate and distract from the director’s narrative flow.
I begin this activity by showing a careful selection of different documentaries, with the purpose of identifying different documentary techniques: voice-over, talking head, interview with historian, dramatic reconstruction, comedy, archive footage, animated graphics, music, etc. My initial stimulous material is a ‘rare archive film’ of Hitler in New York after his initial successes during WWII.
It usually takes a while before all the students realize this is a hoax. Even more suprising for the students is the fact that very few of the 20 odd cuts in this film have been computer assisted. The ‘authenticity’ is achieved by judicious editing and a clever voiceover. And this is where the fun begins.
The most important film I use is something Terry Haydn introduced me to (see Terry at the e-Help conference in Toulouse in 2005) that has the media studies expert Bob Ferguson’s deconstruction of a BBC documentary about Ireland. I have edited the documentary film segment to stand apart from the analysis. I don’t show the analysis until the students have had a chance to reflect on it themselves.
Ireland – A Television History
Bob Ferguson’s interpretation
Aims for students – ‘To make a short (5 minute) documentary about the origins of the Cold War. The documentary must be firmly rooted in one of the three main historiographical traditions: Orthodox, Revisionist or Post-Revisionist. The documentary must use certain prescribed film-making techniques and provided archive film footage. Students will work in groups to research, write and perform the presentation but each individual student will be responsible for a final edited film.’
In other words, this is deliberately bad documentary. The students start with a clear agenda to support one historiographical position. They are forced to use a small selection of pre-edited, muted achive video. This compels them to carefully consider how meaning can be generated by voiceover and music. In addition, they can add one archive video of their choice and as many archive images of their choice. Finally, they must also be filmed as the sound-bite, historian experts reinforcing the general message of the film.
Student Films from 2007
Work from IB history students at the British International School of Bratislava