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Documentaries Reconsidered as Historians Cross Over into Filmmaking

By Louis Menashe

A line of people dressed similarly from Sergei Eisenstein's 'October: Ten Days That Shook the World.'

Last November in Philadelphia, his­torians of what used to be called the Soviet Union gathered to share ideas and compare experiences on a theme of mutual interest: conveying aspects of the singular, complex, and volatile epoch of Gorbachev's perestroika in documentary film.

Rendering history through film generally needs no special pleading these days. The subject turns up on diverse quarters, from academic journals to panel discussions at the Sundance Film Festival, where this year a session subtitled "Animating the Past" centered on such films as JFK and Quiz Show. The Philadelphia session, however, had a certain distinction for reasons of both milieu and participants. The setting was the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. The sponsor for the session was the Working Group on Cinema and TV, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, formed several years ago by a group of scholars, Russian/Soviet specialists particularly, who sought to elevate film studies alongside traditional disciplines like literature and language or who used film in their classes to illuminate politics and society. Isn't it natural to connect film to the history of the Soviet Union, where the founding father anointed the new medium "the most important art" and where artists devised images that continue to flood our ideas of the Soviet past? When we think of the Russian Revolution, we see Eisenstein's Odessa steps from Potemkin or the storming of the Winter Palace from October: Ten Days That Shook the World. (Never mind that Eisenstein invented such scenes; they have assumed a near-documentary reality. Haven't we all seen such shots treated as found footage for documentaries?)

The working group was eventually accredited by the AAASS, but not without first overcoming mainstream doubts regarding the legitimacy of its work as a properly scholarly enterprise. Film just didn't have the right credentials. It was always a struggle, for example, to get the association to provide and pay for projection equipment for sessions where films or clips were to be shown. Not so last year in Philadelphia, and, it is probably safe to say, not anymore. Recognition of the working group is also palpable in its growth, as more and more academics, especially historians, rely on film and familiarize themselves with film language for their teaching and research. (See, for example, the essays in the recent collection Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, edited by Robert A. Rosenstone, who was writer for the documentary The Good Fight and consultant for Warren Beatty's Reds, a historical melodrama of the Bolshevik Revolution and American socialism, based on the life of John Reed .)

Another distinction of the Philadel­phia session is that four of the six histo­rian panelists spoke on the subject from the inside—not as consultants, translators, or fact checkers, but as makers, with varying degrees of control, of documentary films about the Gorbachev period. From the written word or the classroom lecture, they had crossed over into image­ land to tell students and the public the story.

Outwardly, there are some obvious similarities between the historian's craft and the documentary filmmaker's. Each strives for a truthful, fact-based rendition of contemporary or historical actuality. Parallel "production stages" are involved, from conceptualization to research (archives, secondary sources, interviews) to writing and editing. And, as we all know, the most objective historian and the most detached verite documentarist share an agenda, latent or ac­knowledged, that shapes the raw material into a coherent, subjective whole. Ultimately, what we get in text or film is an imaginative re-creation, a kind of deception, you might even say. But of course: History, said Voltaire, is a joke we play on the dead. Or, as the great historian of Soviet Russia, E.H. Carr, put it in a more empirically English way, history is a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a soft periphery of facts.

There is another subtle and rarely confessed dimension uniting documentarist and historian, something noted by historian Susan Heuman of Manhattanville College in New York, who worked for NBC's Today series on life in Gorbachev's Russia in 1987. Likening her presence in central Moscow to a camera operator's in a war zone, she reported filming a demonstration by Soviet Jews that was assaulted by the police. She found herself shouting at the police on behalf of the demonstrators and experienced the exquisite feeling of not just filming a bit of history but participating in it. Scratch a historian or a documentary and you might find a historical actor manque. (Those who can, do; those who can't, teach ... or make a film about it?) Heuman also alluded to a related tru­ism of our image- and media -driven world: the demonstrators' conviction that being filmed helped their cause, that the camera was itself a political instrument with enormous powers to reach mass audiences and policymakers. "The whole world is watching," shouted the demonstrators at the Democratic presidential convention as they were beaten by the Chicago police in 1968. Two decades later that convergence of media and politics had materialized in the Soviet section of the global village. Some analysts argue that not only had this convergence prepared the way for Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, but that it was pivotal in shattering the Soviet structure itself. Television and film, especially documentary film on formerly repressed aspects of Soviet history and contempo­ rary life, played an incalculable part in the ferment of the Gorbachev years.

Anyone with any experience of the pre-Gorbachev period was immediately struck by this. I certainly felt it, as did the correspondent I worked with, Hedrick Smith. I was associate producer for two sections of the four-part PBS documentary Inside Gorbachev's USSR, researched and shot in 1988-1990 (Martin Smith was executive producer). Hedrick Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent of the New York Times in the early 1970s, returned to the Soviet Union after a decade and a half 'absence to make the series. I remember how dumbfounded and delighted he was to see people in Moscow, near the Kremlin, race toward the camera and jostle each other to make their voices heard, a phenomenon unthinkable earlier.

The power of the medium should also bring its practitioners an acute sense of responsibility; I know I felt it. An article I or any historian might publish reaches a comparative handful of people; only the rare historical monograph or biography becomes a bestseller. The PBS documentary, by contrast, reached an estimated 10 million people, making it a powerful instrument affecting U.S. public attitudes about the Gorbachev reforms at a time when many still doubted their substance.

Perhaps it was this sense of responsibility, or maybe it was my training about getting details right and being able to, as we say, "document " any assertion, that often led to differences with my film colleagues. There were many instances of divergence between narration and image that made me uncomfortable, as did several dramatic reenactments in another film I worked on as associate producer, Sherry Jones In the Shadow of Sakharov, for PBS's Frontline (1991). In the end, I was won over to the idea that the story (the best history is at bottom a good story) is most effectively advanced in film through images, not narration. Jones was always critical of correspondents she had to work with who were "text driven, not film driven." And Nancy Schoss, one of the associate producers I worked with, was fond of boasting that a good script for a documentary should be incoherent; the film's coherence and emotional power comes from what is on screen or from an effective synergy of image and text, with the latter serving the former. (All of these discussions, incidentally, illustrate another difference between writing history and filmmaking: The latter is a collective endeavor, involving many, many people, and inherently collaborative even under the most forceful and authoritarian producers/directors.)

The need to de-emphasize the his­torian's "fact driven" compulsions was a film theme argued by the New York University labor historian Daniel J. Walkowitz, coproducer with Barbara Abrash of Perestroika from Below for England's Channel 4, about the miners' strike in southern Russia in 1989. Walkowitz calls upon fellow historians to begin serving their students with combinations of film and book, and he favors obliterating the pedagogical—and epistemological—distinction between documentary and fiction film in historical use. He also leans to postmodern, nonlinear nar­rative strategies for documentary and fiction film alike, and he sees part of the historian's task as teaching film literacy in general.

These issues of modality are related to another, somewhat more historiographic question: What constitutes the proper subject for historical inquiry and documentary presentation? Historian Lewis H. Siegelbaum of Michigan State University, who worked with Walkowitz on a follow-up project, a video-oral history of the Donetsk miners in 1991-1992, stressed the "history-from-below" ap­proaches now cultivated by younger historians. Transferred to film, this "new history" envisions the auteur as only one among many "multiple subjective ties," with the most important being the subjects themselves. For the large Gorbachev story, Walkowitz and Siegelbaum chose miners and the many issues churning through their public as well as personal, and even intimate, lives in order to illuminate the epoch.

I remember constantly confronting such choices in making Inside Gorbachev's USSR. Do we aim for the Kremlin interview with Gorbachev and his associates, or do we root around ordinary lives in Yaroslavl and Ivanovo to highlight those extraordinary times? Interestingly, academics involved in the project, the advisors and consultants, usually favored the first approach; film people—from camera and sound operators to producers—were inclined to the second, and usually they were right, if simple visual interest is the test. Perhaps both are essential, but note how the dilemma of choice commonly confronts historian and documentarist alike.

I can't help noticing another functional similarity in writing and filming history, especially contemporary history, what might be called the serendipity factor, when the unplanned and spontaneous come into play. Walkowitz and Siegelbaum intended a general documentary portrait of the miners when they began their project, but the whole effort was transformed when a massive strike erupted. I remember how on the way to filming an election campaign in rural Russia we stumbled on a women's hunger strike on the steps of a church. It's that strike that stayed in our film, not the election campaign. Sometimes the serendipitous can alter one's whole paradigm. In our case, what we were witnessing was the rebirth of civil society through the spontaneous and undirected self-organization and activity of the Russian masses, actions dupli­cation the women's hunger strike in innumerable forms. Understanding this eroded our original conception of what was going on; before shooting, we had as­sumed that a dynamic Gorbachev leadership was having a hard time moving an inert population into democratization. In some fundamental way, it turned out the opposite was true.

In commenting on our presentations, Andrew Horton, a screenwriter, film scholar, and historian of Russian cinema at Loyola University, applauded the unique contribution that documentarians make to future generations and to their understanding of the past. The images preserved on tape or celluloid become the raw data or primary sources for future historical investigation. But he also chided academics who still refused to accept filmic legitimacy. He told of a colleague who was denied tenure because he had not published a book—he had only produced three prize-winning films. Siegelbaum confessed that in writing funding proposals for their film, they often resorted to the ruse that the film was only a means for collecting testimonies and that the end result would be a written text. Horton called on us to "educate university committees" in these matters.

Denise J. Youngblood, a historian of Russian film and society at the University of Vermont, chaired the session and warned in her summation that historians who ignore film do so at their own peril as teachers and communicators in our age of visual information. Young people learn of the Holocaust through Steven Spielberg, she noted. To which we might add, not every historian can be Spielberg, but all historians should be so conversant in filmographies on their specialty as they are in bibliographies. They might even consider making a film themselves. Look out, documentarists.

Louis Menashe teaches Russian history and film at Polytechnic University, New York, and is an editorial associate of Cineaste magazine.