It’s “documentary week” in class this week, and it’s always my fervent hope that the conversation will lead to new ways of thinking about the purpose and practice of filmmaking. Among the films we watch, three occupy the majority of our time: Henri de la Falaise’s Legong: Dance of the Virgins, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro. What fascinates me most about these titles pedagogically is the way that the response to them is a function of the individual viewing them and their temporal distance from the films. Not that that’s not always the case to some extent, but these particular “documentaries” present measured and careful arguments which spoke clearly to audiences at the time of release, and which can be completely missed by later viewers.
At this point, the once common notion that a documentary is somehow capturing a moment of objective reality has mostly vanished. Students tend to assume that someone is selling them a bill of goods, and (especially when the argument is oversold) they assume it’s a lie. While I’m a natural born skeptic, and tend to look at pretty much anything with a critical eye, I’m not willing to approach the kind of simple relativism that such cynicism eventually entails. Even the most even-handed documentarian has to make choices about presentation with which others of good will might legitimately disagree, and there are also plenty of egregiously ax-grinding filmmakers who can tell the “truth” while skillfully slanting reality to support their argument (you can pretty much see this on any “news” program on any network on any day of the week). That’s just how rhetoric and argument work, and there’s nothing unnatural or necessarily malicious about it. Even small children know that the selective presentation of facts will regulate the response of their parents to mitigate any attendant punishment for a misdeed.
What’s more interesting, however, is the way in which the result of skillful rhetoric in film can be entirely misunderstood by succeeding generations of viewers. Every year the fairly obvious intentions of the three films mentioned above are completely misread by students who don’t have the patience, perspective, background knowledge or general inclination to understand what the films are actually trying to say. Let me hasten to add that I don’t blame the students for this, since (for the most part) no level of education in contemporary America does very much to cultivate the qualities I’ve just mentioned. It does say fascinating things about our interpretation of history, however, especially since at a certain point an argument constructed on film can assume documentary value by the very fact of its survival.
Legong is a case in point. Originally intended as a work of anthropology, the filmmakers decided to impose a story while they were on their way to the shoot. Students generally grasp the issue of how the imposition of a fictional narrative might undermine the “documentary” value of the film, but they also understand that the extended sequences of traditional dance and community rituals might have a value which can be extracted from the film as a whole. Less clear, however, is the entire background of exoticism which pervades the picture, and the simple fact that most of the audience in 1935 would never have the opportunity of traveling to such a far-flung locale. As a stand in for actual travel, the narrative would be treated less skeptically, and the film accepted as more “factual” than it’s taken by an audience today (when I frequently have at least one student who has actually been to Bali, so it’s harder to understand why that’s a big deal).
The Battle of San Pietro is even more compelling, since I have yet to show it to a class that ever understands the stridency of its anti-war message after the first viewing. John Huston’s brilliantly crafted indictment of war was definitely recognized as such by the panel of generals who first viewed it. He got into a lot of hot water, and the release of the film was basically delayed until after the German surrender (and then was seen without a few of the harsher passages, and with a ridiculously awkward opening apologia from the commander of U.S. forces in Italy). It’s unflinchingly cynical regarding the general waging of war as it details a slogging campaign which cost many lives and essentially accomplished nothing of consequence. It also makes it clear that the same thing will just happen again a few miles up the road, ad nauseum. Unfortunately, sixty-plus years later, viewers can easily dismiss the film as “just another old war movie.” This is grossly unfair (and flat-out wrong), but without fathers, brothers or friends risking death while fighting Nazis in Europe, it’s the easy conclusion to draw. Even the fact of two decade long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq gives little pause among CMU students, at least partly because of the socio-economics of modern military service.
In a similar vein, Night and Fog’s carefully organized warning that we are all responsible for behavior which could easily lead to another Holocaust is easily dismissed by viewers who have no direct link to the subject matter. In a way, Resnais’ film is the most significant to this discussion, since his use of contemporary footage of the Holocaust ten years after the end of the war specifically references the way that we compartmentalize such images as “old” and tend to view them as documents of their own time without fully plumbing their relevance to our own.
As I said, I’m not positing some sort of “blame” here, merely considering how we process these films as historical documents. Over time, we tend to reduce historical events to certain shorthand collections of images and ideas, and that reduction encourages us to miss a great deal. In many ways it’s entirely understandable, and it doesn’t even take very long to see this in action (think about the almost immediate censoring of images from 9/11 which took place on the news networks, and how people too young to remember the day itself will soon be reliant on “documentaries” built on similar exclusions), but it’s always worth considering how an argument or idea which might be completely obvious at one time leaves us mystified after only a few years.
If you haven’t seen The Battle of San Pietro, you can watch it here: http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/the-battle-of-san-pietro-1945