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  • Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries by Efrén Cuevas
  • Lourdes Esqueda Verano
Efrén Cuevas
Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries
Columbia University Press, 2022

Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries, published on Columbia University Press’s Wallflower imprint, presents an innovative and original approach to the analysis of the documentary film as a historiographic tool. It is centered on what its author, Efrén Cuevas, categorizes as “microhistorical documentaries,” films that investigate the past with a focus similar to that of written microhistory. This historiographic trend, which first emerged in Italy in the 1970s, has become one of the most productive areas of the “history from below” that has characterized so much research in social and cultural history in recent decades. The book revisits a number of earlier studies by Cuevas, previously published in both Spanish and English, notably including his book La casa abierta [Open House], a landmark work in studies of home movies and their contemporary appropriation. However, this book adopts a more systematic and comprehensive approach in both theoretical and analytical terms than his other publications in this field.

Filming History from Below has a traditional structure articulated around a clear thematic focal point: how a documentary can offer an alternative microhistorical approach to a culturally shared history. After two general chapters that set out to define the microhistorical documentary and to analyze its use of archives, Cuevas presents five case studies and then concludes with an epilogue considering how this type of documentary may evolve in the future, with special attention to the possibilities offered by interactive documentaries. Drawing on the work of key figures in microhistory, such as Carlo Ginzburg and Giovanni Levi, Cuevas begins by identifying the main features of this approach and their application to documentary films. These features include the reduction of the scale of observation to focus on anonymous protagonists outside of public history, the quest for historical representativeness that transcends the individual case, the centrality of human agency, the use of narrative structures, and a conjectural approach to the examination of archives.

In addition to these features, Cuevas proposes others specific to the microhistorical documentary, such as the affective dimension, the frequent use of an autobiographical perspective, and an essayistic approach (Cuevas, 32–40). In his analysis of the use of archives in the book’s second chapter, Cuevas stresses the importance of the family archive, especially photographs and home movies, as historiographical sources for microhistorical documentaries. This chapter is notable for the author’s clear analysis of these materials’ different modes of appropriation (Cuevas, 53–58), which will prove extremely useful for interpreting the films analyzed in the subsequent chapters.

The rest of the book is structured around five case studies whose diversity underscores the validity of the microhistorical documentary as a category. Three of the studies focus on recognized filmmakers (Rithy Panh, Jonas Mekas, and Péter Forgács), while the other two explore a common theme in different films by various directors. The third chapter analyzes the work of Péter Forgács, one of the most paradigmatic examples of this documentary approach. This Hungarian filmmaker has an extensive filmography of historical documentaries, most of which have been made using home movies and amateur films from Hungary and other European countries. Cuevas focuses on three of Forgács’s films in particular: The Maelstrom (1997), which offers a vision of the Holocaust from the perspective of a Dutch Jewish family; and Free Fall (1996) and Class Lot (1997), both of which use the home movies of György Petó to show the dramatic historical changes that occurred in Hungary during its alliance with Nazi Germany and subsequently in the years of the communist regime. The fourth chapter [End Page 61] analyzes four documentaries that deal with the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II in the United States. The first, Something Strong Within, is composed entirely of home movies taken by different families, documenting “ordinary” life in the camps. The other three—A Family Gathering (1988), From a Silk Cocoon (2005), and History and Memory (1991)—explore the historical events through the personal stories of the filmmakers’ families. In...