Skip to main content

Playback: Johan Grimonprez's 'dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y'

By Sam Green

From Johan Grimonprez's 'dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.'

People sometimes ask me what my all-time favorite documentary film is. Many documentaries have moved me, or seem important or have influenced my own work—films like Holy Ghost People by Peter Adair, Nobody's Business by Alan Berliner and The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris.

Somewhere near the top of this list is dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a feature-length experimental documentary made by the Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez in 1997. On the surface, the film sounds pretty straightforward: it traces the history of the hijacking phenomenon during the 20th Century. I first saw the film late one night in experimental doc legend Craig Baldwin's basement.

From the opening scenes of dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, I was riveted. Using archival news footage, Grimonprez strings together a long series of noteworthy moments in hijacking, identified with titles such as "1931—first recorded hijack. Peruvian revolutionaries seize Pan Am plane to drop pamphlets over Lima." The footage itself is gorgeous: a 1960s kinescope of a Japanese hijacker being shot on the tarmac...three enormous jets exploding into flames in a Jordan desert...a reporter trying to interview a Russian hijacker who has been shot in the stomach and who literally dies on camera. For someone who loves evocative images and archival gems as much as I do, this film is stunning. 

The film is definitely experimental. It never really says what it's about, or what it's trying to do. And in this, I think, lies its charm, and its power and sophistication. In many ways, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y uses an experimental film language to evoke complex feelings and ideas that cannot be expressed merely with words. 

The film clearly deals with huge themes: the rise and fall of the revolutionary impulse during the 20th century, the changing nature of "terrorism" during that time, and the role of art and spectacle in the struggle for social change.

But more than that, the film is incredibly moving on an emotional level. Through brilliant editing and a wonderful score by David Shea, Grimonprez is able to create some of the most beautiful and poignant moments I've ever seen on film. One of my favorite things about the documentary is that Grimonprz is not afraid to let the footage breath. By allowing shots to linger, seemingly ordinary images somehow become profound: A long POV shot of a plane landing at night on a foggy runway...a Japanese hijacker sitting in the dock of an Israeli courtroom with his head ethereal shot of baby ducks floating in a zero-gravity chamber.

dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y evoked a lot of strong feelings for me. The film captures a yearning for idealism that is very moving and noble, yet it is also suffused with melancholy and a keen awareness of the long history of human tragedy. By the time the film reaches its incredible climax—a montage of airplanes crashing in slow motion over the song "Do the Hustle"—the combination of horror, beauty, spectacle and inspiration left me breathless. It's a haunting film, and in that sense it seems to me to be art at its most sublime.

dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is available through


Sam Green lives in San Francisco. His most recent film, The Weather Underground, was nominated for an Academy Award and included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. For more info: