Monday, June 22, 2009

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.


TT820 said...

Excellent disquisition, Rick. (And uncannily timely, as well, since I just reviewed a book called Archival Storytelling for The Moving Image.) I especially appreciate your point regarding our implied ability to refer to quoted WRITTEN works for context, and our inability to likewise refer to quoted moving images.

bigperm said...

Both are great points. As an ethnographer and documentary filmmaker I've come to realize the importance of access and trust to make a film that is true to my subject. I often wonder how information is misconstrued when there is a disconnect between producer and ethnographer; or even worse, a film is edited with an emphasis for entertainment over truthfulness. What if we asserted a new caliber of documentary (we'll coin it ethnomentary) based on ethnography? It would be a way to convey a heightened level of story telling, an expert level of knowledge that could only be gained through years of study and understanding?

Rob Fantinatto said...

Thank you for such a stimulating piece, it was very inspiring...

You really hit the nail on the head, it's very difficult for film makers, who see the power of image itself, to convince the "gatekeepers" who tend not to be visual people, about this very issue.

It's a wonder a film like Baraka got made in 70mm...a film with a very loose narrative...more like a series of motifs that string the images together.

Sheila Curran Bernard said...

Hi Rick --

It’s think it’s not storytelling that’s the problem; it’s that the definition of story has been corrupted, and its application to nonfiction media is often misunderstood. Furthermore, good storytelling is compromised in today’s faster-cheaper assembly line of documentary products; too many films suffer not only from insufficient R&D but also a lack of creative time. And too often, audiences don’t see what’s been lost.

I agree that “[s] ome 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…Still others divide into sequences or parts that need to be understood and compared as discrete units…” But I would argue that these are examples of story structures; they hold tremendous potential. Good storytelling doesn’t mean soap opera or the threat of disaster; stories shouldn’t always emphasize personal experience, nor do they always need to be character driven—and when they are, the stakes should emerge from within, and not be imposed from outside.

I also agree that among mainstream documentaries, “what's now called ‘storytelling,’ [is] 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.” But again, the problem lies not in the form but the ineffective application of it by people who don’t really understand it, or people who don’t have the resources – time and money – to do it well. Three-act dramatic structure is an ancient and flexible approach to drama, and not – except in certain screenwriting books – a formula. It is a tool, and one that can be used to explore as well as create works as diverse as Hamlet, Proof, My Cousin Vinny, or Bowling for Columbine. It’s not easy to do well, and it’s often misapplied, as when a filmmaker divides a work into three parts and calls them acts, or believes that conflict equals shouting, or that tension has to involve danger.

More importantly, I think the lack of resources for quality storytelling stems from a greater problem: weak documentary literacy. To explain: Most people can walk into a bookstore and distinguish between the quality, purpose, rigor, and craft of books and other print materials. Readers can differentiate between a Pulitzer Prize-winning history and an illustrated Time-Life offering on the same topic, and between The New Yorker and National Enquirer. They understand that both Sean Smith (Britney: The Unauthorized Biography…) and David McCullough (John Adams) have used the tools of storytelling, but quite differently.

Anecdotally, documentary film viewers are not as discerning. They recognize common storytelling devices – interviews, narration, recreations – but not key differences in how and why (and how effectively) these devices are created and employed. Archival use is accepted as a documentary convention, but how materials are used, whether specifically or generically, whether it’s been manipulated, etc., is too rarely part of the discussion. This lack of literacy is especially significant when it involves educators, gatekeepers, policymakers, philanthropists, and even film subjects. If people don’t understand the differences, they’re not likely to support projects that take greater financial, creative, or programming risks – and so we get more of the same: faster and cheaper. It’s as if the bookstore is filling with works about celebrities and haunted houses, but new and innovative works of creative nonfiction, well-crafted historical narratives, rigorous and up-to-date science or public policy materials, are appearing with less and less frequency.

Not only would be terrific to “put original, unedited archival material out in the world” – it would also be a chance to compare the story and storytelling choices made by media makers in days past.

Thanks for starting this discussion!

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your online archive and this post at the same time. Kudos - very nice work.

I admire your optimism regarding the possibility of divorcing storytelling from the moving image. I think at this point, as far as the whole world minus a very precious few is concerned, storytelling is simply part of the medium. Even 30 second commercials take bizarre steps to develop characters and show them in conflict.

I don't know what the solution is either, but bless you for at least dissenting.

Anonymous said...


Well thought-out and excelletly written(Taking history back from the storytellers.)

Fr many years I wondered about the overlay/music/seduction/snippets ! used to covey info in documentaries.

I am interested in contributing to the classification,cateloging, and so on of your collections. I am a retired adult education administrator who has a BA in history/Russian studies, and an MA.

Let me know, please, if there is a fit, or if there is something you might think I would be useful at. Hopefully, this message gives you some useful info.



Anonymous said...

Who needs stories? Watching the grass grow is exciting - I'll bet we could get three or four people to do it.

You folks are hilarious.

Really? Storytelling is a problem?

The problem folks, is that people who have a good education or understanding of a subject don't care to know about their audience or how to present it well, so that their stories get left to hacks.

Unknown said...

I was captivated by your argument, and I must say that I agree. Storytelling strips a layer of realism from artistic expression. As a historian and media librarian at Stanford, I came to prefer my art to have as little "spin" as possible, and a looser creative narrative arc.

This was a pleasure to read, and well stated.



Unknown said...

A great response to and analysis of what's happening with archival images. As a filmmaker who uses lots of archival material I have to agree that you are right on point. I would also argue in defense of creative talents like Jay Rosenblatt, whose work with archival material is really transformative. Everything can be grist for the mill, and lets see what people can come up with.

I should also point out, that filmmakers haven't just arbitrarily arrived at these narrative conventions. They are under extreme pressure from gatekeepers (commissioning editors, funders, programmers, etc.) to keep to the tried and true. And while the costs of production have really dropped, doing a project still involves considerable expense. I'd love to make complete archival reels available with my films, but that is out of my control.

participant observer said...

Insightful essay from Mr. Prelinger.

IMHO, much of the fault lies with the poverty of current documentary rhetoric. The power of much archival footage (and even the best documentary photography and film) is in its lack of easy context. These are images that cannot be 'explained away' by simple polemic - which is precisely what much of current documentary (from ITVS to Michael Moore) often does.

Look at work by Vertov, Wiseman, Evans, Arbus; it resists easy explanation (or even description!). Look at work by filmmakers who deliberately place their images in paradoxical narrative contexts (e.g., Godard, Chris Marker).

I believe that many of those who dole out scant production funds have an extremely limited knowledge of film narrative; they tend to view familiar formulas and cliches as stories that will grab an audience. So the 'hacks' get the funding, and those that want to expand the bounds of doc (by, say, making innovative use of archival footage) go begging . . .

The problem rests not with narrative per se; it lies with the current poverty of narrative forms deemed 'acceptable' by chickenshit funders; and with the inability of many filmmakers to view footage as anything other than illustration for their facile arguments.

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