Three documentaries show that history can be understood in terms of time periods of different duration: A single event such as an airship trip in 1929, a long running campaign to distort Palestinian history, or the memories of a father connected to world events.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Archive material played a major role in a number of the films screened at last year’s International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. By using archive material, images of the past are presented in the present, and thus the past itself becomes represented in the here and now. This technique is often chosen in order to rewrite history, to give us a different understanding of the past, or to uncover hidden or forgotten stories.

Dealing with the past inevitably raises questions about time. According to the late French historian Fernand Braudel, time moves at different speeds,1)See Bill Schwarz, Media times/historical times, Screen 45:2 Summer 2004, p. 100 which makes it multiple rather than singular. Braudel identified three different time periods: long-term, mid-term, and short-term.2)See Cheng-Chung Lai, Braudel’s concepts and methodology reconsidered, The European Legacy 5(1) p.65 Braudel used these concepts as a perspective on history, as a framework for periods to be analysed and understood. The longterm view takes a century or longer as the unit of analysis and may be understood as more or less immobile. The mid-term view encompasses periods between 10 and 50 years and may be considered the time-scale of social institutions, of economic systems, states, and societies. The short-term is the duration of single events, taking weeks, a season, or a few years.

Although Braudel’s concepts are not without their problems – for one thing he never defined them properly – they can serve as a way to look at films that deal with historical subjects. We can look at the perspective of the filmmaker: what scale of history is s/he addressing? But we can also look at how the different timescales are
connected. Long-term history may encompass several mid-term histories, which again may encompass short-term histories. This is not how Braudel conceived these time-concepts, but we can nevertheless use them to gain insight into how films relate to different concepts of time and how different lengths of time can be used to analyse and understand history. Three films are discussed below, in which archive material is used in different ways and to different degrees.

FAREWELL (Ditteke Mensink, The Netherlands, 2009) is composed entirely of archive images and centres on the round the world trip by the air-ship Graf Zeppelin. On board are a group of reporters, only one of whom is female: Lady Grace DrummondHay. The film consists of on-board images of the trip, archive images of the surroundings, newsreel, and fiction images. A voice-over reads Drummond-Hay’s diaries and writings, which recount both details about the trip and about her relationship with her colleague Karl Henry von Wiegand, who was also on board.

Farewell recounts a single event: the trip of the zeppelin, spanning three weeks in the summer of 1929. The trip turns out to be exciting and tiring, thrilling and demanding. Several hurdles need to be cleared on the way, both with respect to the air voyage and to the personal relationship between Drummond-Hay and Von Wiegand.

The images of this short-term history are those taken on board the zeppelin and of the airship flying over land or sea, as well as images of the surroundings (sometimes taken from a window). At times, images from newsreels and fiction film are cut in to illustrate, for example, news reports about the zeppelin trip.

The film firmly grounds this event in larger histories, most notably that of the US in the roaring twenties: lively dance halls, prohibition (barrels of booze are smashed into smithereens) and the stock exchange thriving with trade. This is the era of limitless possibilities and progress of man.

The film is also grounded in the political situation of Europe and Russia at the time: Germany is still suffering as a result of reparation payments, and new forces present themselves, seen as soldiers reporting in swastika-adorned outfits. The Russian revolution stagnates, Stalin is feared and people are not to be envied.

The images that accompany these parts of history are quite general and serve to illustrate the film script. They are not images of the trip but rather street images of New York, Friedrichshafen, Berlin and Tokyo, and images of rural Russia (or so we are led to believe).

A long-term sense of history is absent in the film. Images of the oceans, the plains, the mountains and the New York skyline do relate a sense of eternity, but they are not part of an overarching narrative.

In Farewell, the story of the zeppelin trip is told within the framework of what made it possible (the roaring twenties) and the political ideology it belonged to (the freedom of the West set against the undesirable situation/ideologies developing in Europe/Russia).

JAFFA, THE ORANGE’S CLOCKWORK (Eyal Sivan, Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, 2009) tells the story of the historical town of Jaffa in former Palestine – present day Israel (now part of Tel Aviv) – where Arabs and Christians grew and traded the best oranges, together, for decades. After the British Mandate (1917-1948) and the Nakba (1948).3 this history is, however, negated. Instead an image was consructed of Jewish immigrants bringing bare countryside and deserted orchards back to life. The film combines interviews, photos, advertisements, and archive film into a narrative that unravels the PR-campaign that erased Palestine history, painted a false but desired image of the Holy Land, and appropriated the Jaffa orange as an Israeli/Jewish success.

The distortion of Palestinian history began when European photographers realised that the Holy Land did not quite look like what they had expected based on reading the holy book. They adapted the images to the text and returned with photos of simple people living in deserts with camels. This false image was adopted after the British and Jewish took over  the land. The successful co-operation between Arabs and Christians, going back well into the nineteenth century, was erased from collective memory.

During interviews with various historians and arts experts, images of advertisements, archive footage and photos are projected onto any convenient wall in the interviewee’s office or home. In this way, the images of the past are literally extended into the present, for the interviewees to comment on. The negation of history is experienced directly – the protagonists in the film, and the viewers, see it continuing today. Therefore, Jaffa primarily tells its tale from a long-term historical perspective.

A number of mid-term views of history are also included: the old days of cooperation and thriving businesses, the period of Jewish settlers during the first half of the 20th century, the British Mandate period, and the time after the Nakba when many Palestinian workers had left. These are illustrated by archive images from these periods, such as newsreels and propaganda films.

A few short-term histories are also included: individual losses of Palestinian orchards, the Nakba itself, the advertising campaigns for the Jaffa orange and the counter campaigns using the orange as an image of aggression.

In Jaffa the over-arching story of the distortion of Palestinian history is told through mid-term views of history –  the creation of a suitable image of the Holy Land, the Jewish settlement movement in the 1920s, the British Mandate, the Jewish takeover of the orange growing industry, and the use of the orange as a symbol of the Holy Land of Israel. Single events included in these larger cycles of history are the forced conformism under British rule, the Nakba, the advertisement campaigns and – in the end – the destruction of the orange groves around Jaffa.

Jaffa is, in terms of historical analysis of time periods of different duration, the most layered of all three films. It shows us how different events and histories can together amount to a single narrative, a single larger history, which is not the subject of any of the contributing histories but their cumulative result.

IN CLANDESTINE (Gideon Kennedy, Marcus Rosentrater, US, 2009) archive material is used to reconstruct the story of spies caught with shortwave receivers and encrypted messages. This is mixed with a fictional story of a son’s memories of a father who deciphered such messages as a hobby and the effect this had on his family. A female voice-over recounts the fate of the spies and a male voice-over tells the story of the father. A wide variety of images are used to support these stories.

The film spans the period between 1940 and 2009. The fictional story about the memories of a father and family life, and the days when shortwave radio distributed numbered codes, can be understood as a mid-term history. The archive material used to support the fictional story provides credible images for the script.

The fates of the former spies form shorter histories: we briefly hear who they are, how they were caught and what sentences they received in their trials. The archive material here seems to refer directly to the individuals discussed: we see images of the spies themselves and of their equipment. The spies are all linked to countries such as Russia, the Czech Republic and Cuba. This in turn ties the story to the Cold War period.

In Clandestine the mid-term history of shortwave radio and numbers stations and of the of a boy and his wanna-be spy father, is punctated by shorter-term events such as the uncovering and arrest of several spies. These events connect the personal stories to a general, public history. In this way public history becomes personal.

USING BRAUDEL’S different concepts of time it has been shown how history consists of specific time intervals of different cycle length, and how these are interconnected. Jaffa, by presenting a long-term history spanning over a century that also consists of mid-term and short-term histories, uncovers a single policy: the negation of Palestine’s history. Clandestine presents a mid-term family history in an era of espionage, punctated by short-term histories of the fate of individuals. With Farewell it is the other way around: the short-term history of the zeppelin trip is strongly anchored in the mid-term histories of the roaring twenties and the European and Russian interwar period.

Analyses like these show how events and situations are never isolated, but are part of larger episodes, such as in Farewell and Jaffa, and how larger stories penetrate smaller events, as in Clandestine. History does not fall from the sky. Histories are connected, in time as well as over time.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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References   [ + ]

1. See Bill Schwarz, Media times/historical times, Screen 45:2 Summer 2004, p. 100
2. See Cheng-Chung Lai, Braudel’s concepts and methodology reconsidered, The European Legacy 5(1) p.65