July 8, 2009

Re-examining Native American History Through an Interpretive Lens

History is written by the winners, according to a common aphorism. We Shall Remain is a PBS American Experience series that endeavors to reveal historical truth from a different perspective. The project is a series of five telefilms that examine pivotal moments in the long struggle of Native American people to resist expulsion and escape extinction in North America. We Shall Remain (www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain) was conceived as an attempt to recast familiar historical episodes-the first Thanksgiving, Geromino, Tecumseh's unification campaign, the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee-from the perspective of the Native people.

Toward that end, We Shall Remain is a collaboration between Native and non-Native filmmakers and advisors at all levels. Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals; Edge of America) directed two episodes, and co-directed a third with award-winning documentarian Ric Burns (New York: A Documentary Film); and Stanley Nelson (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; The Murder of Emmett Till) directed the episode about Wounded Knee. The first three episodes, photographed by Paul Goldsmith, ASC, make extensive use of dramatizations.

"Trying to make an effective dramatization of a historic event is like walking on eggshells," says Goldsmith (Renaldo and Clara; When We Were Kings). "Any misstep is a disaster and ruins the effect. Films that feature re-creations start off behind the eight ball because the initial impetus is to make an illustration of an event. This is not cinema, which is based on character, conflict and narrative."

With that in mind, the filmmakers envisioned the images as scenes in a movie, with characters following arcs, rather than as mere illustrations. Crucial to the success of this approach was the cooperation of many Native people in period costumes, often photographed in the places where the actual history unfolded.

"The Native Americans we filmed were spectacular in their visual presentation, and the landscape is majestic," says Goldsmith. "Photographically, this gave us a lot of potential. We chose to film handheld, keeping in mind that the European New Wave taught us that leaving things out can be beneficial. The audience becomes more involved as they try to fill in the gaps.

"The handheld camera is often searching," Goldsmith continues. "It gives the impression that we don't know ahead of time what it will find. It's not in the exactly correct spot when someone makes an entrance, and it doesn't make a smooth pan over to someone just before they say something. Focus is chasing the subject."

Similarly, smoke, dirt and rain often obscure the image. Branches or blades of grass wave in the foreground. "The audience gets glimpses, because when you see something for too long, too clearly, it's easy to start thinking that it isn't real," says Goldsmith. "That puts additional pressure on the writing and the acting. With a big close-up, after you absorb the image, your eye can become bored, so I made sure we looked away as well-at the people watching, at details of wardrobe, or an ear being pierced, or a weapon in a hand--anything to keep the cinematic language involving. If your eye is involved, hopefully you are engaged with the script and the characters, and you feel the full impact of the scene. The photography is only there to make the story better and the characters more interesting."

When operating, Goldsmith used a monitor rather than the eyepiece. "I find that working with the monitor, I'm willing to make ‘mistakes' that make the image more compelling and draw the viewer in," he explains.

The Super-16 film format allowed Goldsmith to frame the images in a 16:9 aspect ratio using the entire negative area. He used an Arriflex camera with a Canon 11:163 mm zoom lens and Kodak Vision2 50D 7201, Kodak Vision2 250D 7205 or Kodak Vision2 500T 7218 film. He generally avoided filtration on the camera. When necessary, he augmented natural light with a single 7K or 4K Xenon lamp.

Breathtaking landscape shots were processed normally, helping to draw a visual connection between the historical events and the contemporary world. The lab used a bleach bypass process that muted color and reduced contrast for scenes with Native Americans. "That created a slightly unfamiliar look that had a roughness that helped place the scene in the past," Goldsmith explains. "That's another example of a narrative technique used to keep the viewer engaged."

 

We Shall Remain will premiere in HD format on American Experience in April 2009. A Blu-ray disc release is also planned, which is a first for an American Experience documentary.

David Heuring has been writing about cinematography for 20 years, and is a contributor to Variety, American Cinematographer, HD Magazine, British Cinematographer and many other industry publications and websites. 

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