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Future of the Past Focus of “History 2001”

By Robert F. James

Historian Simon Schama, host/narrator of the BBC/History Channel series <em>A History of Britan</em>, was keynote speaker at the World Congress of History Producers.

In the midst of vivid reminders that today’s news is tomorrow’s history, 400 filmmakers and broadcasters gathered in Boston last fall for History 2001, the inaugural edition of the World Congress of History Producers. The sponsor, Boston’s own WGBH, and the organizer, Canada’s Banff Television Foundation, trumpeted the conference as an international event exploring “the future of history.” But the audience—as participants were quick to point out—was dominated by documentary-makers from North America, Australia and the UK, making for more insular explorations than some had hoped for. Nonetheless, conferees—no matter their goals in attending—discovered a wealth of new ideas and opportunities.

The organizer might have taken better steps to distinguish the “marketplace” aspects of the event from the conference programming, according to many participants. But that’s admittedly nit-picking: the majority awarded History 2001 a thumbs up.

Historian-turned-celebrity Simon Schama was the star attraction and keynote speaker. In his high-toned opening remarks, Schama urged the creators of history shows to aim high—and not settle for making mediocre films targeting unimaginative viewers. Historical documentarians, according to Schama, must capitalize on their “poetic connection” with audiences. “We have to speak in the television equivalent of verse to connect with audiences,” Schama said. “It’s how we persuade viewers to believe they’re actually in the past. We’re not replicators of the past, we’re realizers. History on television is as real as history can get.”

Schama illustrated his point generously with clips from A History of Britain, produced for BBC and recently premiered in the US on The History Channel. “We did precisely the opposite of ‘dumbing down’ A History of Britain,” Schama told International Documentary in an interview. “The only compromise I feel we made was that we were obliged to shape the story into a narrative arc. But practically every history professor writing for print does the same thing. Beyond that, we purposely sought to de-academicize language, to introduce a kind of street language that would bring history to life. Today’s audiences want ‘passionate.’ We tried to give it to them.”

A panel of luminaries that boasted, among others, producer David Grubin and broadcaster Laurence Rees immediately followed the keynote. Headlined “The Ethical Quagmire: Facing the Tough Questions,” the session slogged through some murky moral waters: achieving “balance” when presenting history’s villains; handling sources who want to straightjacket a producer with conditions or be paid for information; and tampering with historical facts, footage and photography.

Although the panelists stumbled at points, they dredged up a number of noteworthy nuggets:

Merely exposing a bad guy isn’t compelling enough to warrant a documentary, according to Grubin. The balance that comes from doing painstaking research, and knowing why a story is worth telling, are much more important. “I want to understand causes and consequences,” said Grubin. “I can’t buy into being a ‘crusading journalist.’” PBS programming executive Jacoba Atlas noted that “balance for balance’s sake” is silly. “You want balance because you want to back up your opinion with knowledge, not with passion and prejudice alone.”

Sources who place gag rules on the historical filmmaker are bad news. “You can’t touch people who put conditions on interviews,” said Laurence Rees. The same applies to sources who want to be paid for their time or—except for customary licensing fees—for access to archival materials. “You cannot make ‘deals’ that you don’t inform the viewers of,” Rees said. “How would they feel, if they found out?” Executive producer John Carroll echoed the point. “Deals are problematic in two ways—both your source’s credibility and yours. Because some of the information is fruit of the poison tree, the viewer can’t trust anything.”

Panelists were unanimous about too-conveniently doctoring historical materials and facts. While there are “acceptable cheats”—computer-aging footage of recreations, for example—there are clear limits to playing fast and loose with the past. Producers should never alter archival footage or photography. “You can’t use historical footage to cheat the viewer, when this very footage is the historical evidence,” David Grubin said. Nor should producers present recreations that aren’t patently that—recreations. It’s also forbidden to shoot a recreation of an event that occurred at night in the daytime, then present it without informing the viewer when the event actually took place; fabricate dialogue from hearsay, fragments or dialogue from another period in a speaker’s life; or include undocumented events or outcomes “as if” they actually happened without informing viewers you’re speculating. Producer June Cross captured panelists’ views nicely: “Motion pictures represent emotional truth; documentaries, historical truth. We have a standard to bear of full disclosure and substantive truth-telling.”

Foremost on everyone’s mind, of course, were the tragic events of September 11 and their effects on the industry. “The events have increased demand for pre-20th Century documentaries,” Bath, England-based producer Marion Milne told International Documentary. “Audiences suddenly want more ‘big,’ sweeping histories that help them understand how we got into the situation we’re in today.”

But how to classify shows presenting recent history? The panel session “Where Does News End and History Begin?” sought to define the real-world difference among news, public affairs and history programming. Panelist Jan Rofekamp, president of Montreal-based Films Transit, Inc., suggested there was little actual difference. “Many historical documentaries depart from current affairs, though not from current events,” Rofekamp said. A film such as Attica, he noted, is a case in point. By taking a reporter’s approach, it crosses the line between news and history. “A documentary like Attica is both historical and investigative. It unearths never-before-seen footage and facts not previously discovered.”

Panelist Stephen Segaller, news and public affairs programming director for New York’s WNET, was clear about the uniqueness of each type of programming. While public affairs programs and historical documentaries both “contextualize” news, they differ from each other in the hardest of terms: money. “In the minds of funders, news ends and history begins,” he said. “Public affairs programming is very hard to get funded; history, less so. That’s because public affairs programming involves unpleasant subject matter and is much less attractive to audiences.”

The panel session “Fiction and the Facts: History and Storytelling” brought into contact producers and professional historians. While decidedly filmmaker-friendly, the historians offered strong words of advice for historical documentarians.

Historian Natalie Davis praised recreation for its capacity to show viewers how “big historical trends played out in individuals’ lives.” Recreation can, moreover, explain “the causes and triggers of historical events with a subtlety not possible in prose,” and suggest “the rich ‘pastness of the past,’ its corporal nature.”

Davis cautioned documentary-makers, however, to always let historical evidence, “or its spirit,” guide recreation. She also advocated more diligent use of on-screen disclaimers and of “websites that provide viewers footnotes and bibliographies.”

“I don’t want to imagine the public as guileless and completely dumb,” Davis told International Documentary. “They may be gullible, but people feel entitled to form an opinion [about an historical event] after they’ve seen a film—more so than after they’ve read a book.”

Panelist Robert Toplin, history professor and advisor on several historical dramas produced for PBS and The Disney Channel, pled for earlier involvement of historians in documentary production. “Historians should be brought into a project’s conceptualization, and not used just to verify that the right buttons and belt buckles have been used.”

Another panel tackled “What’s Right and Wrong with History on Television?” Looking at what’s right, the panelists nominated the all-time top historical documentaries. Their picks included The Civil War, Night and Fog, Rebellion, Hotel Terminus and Hearts and Minds.

Turning to what’s wrong, they described a veritable host of sins, including:

Staleness. The formula enshrined by American Experience—“B-roll used to cover interviews of eyewitnesses”—is terribly overdone. “More experimentation is needed,” said Jeremy Murray-Brown, film professor at Boston University. “Slow motion, for example, can bring out important meanings in archival photography. Period music can be equally revealing.”

Inaccuracy. The human urge to “tell stories” is too often driving documentarians to fill their productions with rampant invention masquerading as fact, according to Richard Nielsen, president of Canada’s Norflicks Production, Ltd. The danger in relying on the interview form lies in its inherent unreliability. “The true spirit and attitude of a period is best reflected in books and letters written during that period,” Nielsen said.

Oversimplification. Too much history on television is “official history,” according to panelist Alex Gibney, who is currently producing The Blues in association with Martin Scorsese. “Official history” comprises those boiled-down accounts of events that are generally accepted by the majority of historians, the history that “belongs to the winners.” “Broadcasters want to present history ‘the way it was,’” and won’t give producers the latitude to show audiences “the detective story the historians lived through in order to reach that point of understanding where ‘official history’ begins.”

Pandering. The unfailing pursuit of a target demographic by broadcasters is “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” according to Alex Graham, creator of The 1900 House. Ignoring new audiences and interests results in stultifying programming, and far too many subjects and points-of-view are simply never featured. A painfully timely case in point: the history of the Islamic world.


Washington, DC-based freelancer Robert F. James writes on a variety of subjects. His feature articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The World & I, The Christian Science Monitor, Southern Exposure and elsewhere.