- Editor’s Introduction
The five essays in issue 38.1 represent an international attempt to understand the cultural, aesthetic, and philosophical reach of the documentary form. While the documentary mode occupies one end of the film-genre spectrum, with fantasy fiction occupying the other, the documentary borrows from fiction, in technique and substance, more often than we like to admit. And the authors in this issue have the goods to prove it. Just as cultural anthropologists and literary historians teach us how to read the empirical history behind the myths, fantasies, romances, and speculative fictions, the authors of these five essays teach us how to read the scripting, sometimes even the fantasy-making, behind the empirical history.
Our lead essay, “Hearts and Minds and Bodies: Reconsidering the Cinematic Language in The Battle of the Somme,” describes how the 1916 blockbuster documentary exploited the cinematic devices of its day to produce a propaganda film that even the British elite, for whom the movies were irrelevant low-brow culture, could not resist. How did this documentary seize the imaginations of millions, from every class and station? What subtle craft lay behind its design? The film is graphic, certainly, but is it artful—and to what effect? John Hodgkins tackles this question.
Our second essay examines a similar phenomenon in Ken Burns’ television documentary The Civil War. Judith Lancioni explains how a series that so many critics and general viewers still consider a definitive representation of the U.S. Civil War is, in fact, an overt “battleground of meaning.” Burns systematically pluralizes the oral, written, and, especially, pictorial accounts of the war and its participants. Viewers think they are getting the picture, the transcript, only to discover that the voice has been inflected, the view has been re-framed, the connection to the evidence has been re-drawn.
In our third essay, J. Emmett Winn measures the racist ideology at work in a benchmark USDA agriculture film, Helping Negroes Become Better Farmers and Homemakers (1921). Readers of Winn’s essay will appreciate how susceptible viewers were in the early Twenties to editing tricks, large and small, that rewrote the historical record of the advances blacks had made in their own civil engineering. Winn explains how the role of black farmer in the narrative was staged to undermine and to re-position the very self-reliance that the film was praising.
The final selections are from Udi Greenberg and Leshu Torchin, examining, respectively, the caginess of the film Europa and the defiance of the film Borat. These two essays show that the documentary is a state of mind as much as a style of representation. Europa continually skirts its own historical consciousness of the Jewish holocaust, repressing the personal and collective memories of its characters, and so the film signals the limitations of popular history. In a more parodic way, Borat challenges cultural history and popular consciousness by flouting the conventions—and the referential stability—of the documentary mode that Westerners have developed to stigmatize outsiders and to normalize the ethical contradictions in their own society. [End Page 6]
We are safe on neither side of the Atlantic, it seems, from the inculcations of film. But no other medium achieves such sublime effects, as the essays here remind us. Measuring the power of each film’s style, not just content, reveals how persuasive the documentary mode can be, often defining the unknown world for us before it has been tainted—we think—by style. And yet the documentary does put in perspective our actual contact with the past or with foreign cultures or even with unfamiliar parts of our own country, contact that is limited usually to the museum trip or the slow drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods or the odd conversation with a visitor from beyond our borders. If the documentary is an art, if its truths are always a function of its style, then it is also a kind of geography, taking us into necessary worlds—and into ways of seeing them—that seek a faithful witness to their reality. [End Page 7]