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The Moving Image 6.1 (2006) 82-101

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Storytelling and Archival Material in The Trouble with Merle

[End Page 82]

Between 2000 and 2002, I researched, wrote, and directed a television documentary about Merle Oberon, the Hollywood star of the 1930s and '40s. The film, The Trouble with Merle, explores various competing stories and claims made by different groups for Oberon's ethnicity and nationality: that she was either born in India of Anglo-Indian ancestry or that she was Tasmanian-born of Chinese ancestry. In the process of uncovering these stories, the film reflects on celebrity and memory, and the way racism can shape a life.

Merle Oberon's provenance and early life story have been a matter of some contention among those interested enough to discuss such things—particularly in Australia, where numerous individuals have claimed a family relationship to her. In the course of researching The Trouble with Merle, I uncovered different accounts of Oberon's [End Page 83] early years and nationality, family histories that led me from Australia to the United States, India, and Canada. As a filmmaker interested in storytelling, picking through these narratives offered an opportunity to consider their cultural function and specifically, given that my film was about a historical figure, how both nonfiction and fiction archival film material might be used in the film along a spectrum from the evidential or empirical to the expressive. One challenge was to develop a structure for the film that might allow the telling of these different "Merle" stories while at the same time providing some insight into the pleasures of storytelling itself, and into the way a set of questions about race, class, and celebrity attached to the "idea" of Oberon. I envisaged a film that could contribute to a discussion that illuminated the tension that often exists between empirical notions of historical evidence and the significance of oral histories and myth in people's lives. And, of course, the film's title, The Trouble with Merle, is intended to suggest this very tension.

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Figure 1
Dark Angel (1935), directed by Sidney Franklin, with Merle Oberon and Fredric March. Courtesy Janet Schirn Collections.

Desmond Bell, discussing documentary filmmakers' use of archival film footage in the representation of history and popular memory, has posed the following questions: [End Page 84]

How should we as documentary filmmakers picture the past, how should we conduct the struggle for memory? Should archival images be dealt with as primary evidence and mute testimony to an unattainable past or as narrative resource capable of releasing the submerged voices of history and attending to their story?

Similar questions informed the research for and production of The Trouble with Merle. The archival footage in the film includes Oberon performing as dramatic characters in her fiction films together with actuality footage of her as a celebrity film star. Early archival images of Tasmania, newspaper clippings, family photographs, and archival Australian television footage are also used. The potential of the archival material to function as both indexical evidence and story element is what interested me.

In television documentary film biographies, a life story is often constructed along a chronological grid using interviews with the subject and their peers, together with archival footage and illustrative material presented with a voice-over. Recent examples of this style of biography might include Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), a documentary about the late film director. The film is narrated1 by another Hollywood star, Tom Cruise, who describes Kubrick's life from his birth onward. Interviews with Kubrick's wife Christiane and a range of those who knew and worked with him combine with archival material such as family photographs and extracts from the director's films to illustrate or substantiate the truth of the commentary. In a documentary biography of this kind, truth often becomes an unassailable monolith, represented by a seamless lack of conflict. Documentary theorist Bill Nichols has described a variety of categorical possibilities for the documentary form: the expository, interactive/participatory, observational, reflexive, and performative...


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