Re-enacting events is a growing trend in history documentaries. This was one of the issues highlighted at the third World Congress of History Producers which took place in Paris this past December.

Tue Steen Müller

Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

Pat Ferns

The third World Congress of History Producers was organised on the initiative of the Banff Television Foundation, France Télévisions and FR 5, and the more than 400 delegates from all over the world were offered a rich menu of well edited sessions, screenings, a video library and a range of social activities to discover ‘tout Paris’. Television executives and producers went to seek inspiration and contacts. They profited from the venue’s well furnished salons to have meetings with colleagues and editors in an atmosphere that was very much personalised in the jovial professionalism of the master of ceremony, Pat Ferns from Banff.

The room was packed at one of the first sessions of the Congress whose neutral informative intention was to deal with ‘Fashions and Trends’. Four commissioning editors showed clips and talked about channel politics and profiles. Ann Julienne from FR5 represented French television. German Olaf Grunert dealt with Arte. Jacoba Atlas talked about PBS USA and Janice Hadlow from Channel 4 presented her own channel, supplemented with clips from a couple of other British history documentaries. The panellists pointed to the fact that the bigger channels all commission history documentaries that involve drama and/or re-enactments. Nowadays, some historical documentaries are pure drama. They are received with success. “History goes primetime,” in the words of Janice Hadlow.

“The real problem is that they look like television and do not have a drop of reality in them,” roared Nick Fraser from the audience. The BBC Storyville editor thus introduced the key question: Can we trust history programmes that aim more for entertainment than facts? The question was left unanswered, there were doubts about this development in especially high-budget programming, but there was also general agreement that finding new ways in storytelling is a good thing. “This is what the audience wants,” was an oft-repeated line.

Janice Hadlow

Janice Hadlow responded to her fellow countryman Fraser: “It is a misunderstanding. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We are not making art-house movies.” “Take it as a compliment,” said the moderator sarcastically, “you are supposed to make television.”

Fraser’s BBC colleague, Laurence Rees, argued at a later session ‘Facts and Fakes’ that BBC will now invest more in acting and actors for their big historical documentaries and less in CGI (Computer Generated Images). He referred to *Colosseum-Rome’s Arena of Death that had 6.7 million viewers on BBC and, according to the producer, is “a compelling narrative combined with state-of-the-art computer graphics and high-quality drama reconstruction, throwing new light on the way gladiators really fought and trained,” (from an ad in the Congress catalogue). All verified by historical experts.

On the same panel, refreshingly, was the UK director Jonathan Lewis, who said that he knew he was invited because he did not agree with the rest of the panel! “I don’t believe in reconstruction. We don’t know where it comes from. What I have seen here are not documentaries!” Lewis showed astonishing, powerful clips from his films from the First and Second World War.

Rees, who a few years ago rejected any kind of reconstruction, argued that all cannot be made like that any longer. Studies have shown that films based on archive and eyewitness interviews primarily attract audiences of 60+. Young audiences find these black & white films boring. The challenge is to signpost the audience so they know that this programme is based on serious factual research. Rees also raised the question about eyewitnesses and credibility, referring to distorted memories when asking people to remember something that happened fifty years ago.

Chris Durlacher had made a film on George Orwell, a fake documentary. “We created the archive,” he said, “as there was none. We set up a perfect archive for a film where all words are from George Orwell.” Durlacher explained that he also used real archive material like John Grierson’s *Coalface from 1935, where a lot had already been reconstructed!

The French mentioned the popular series Les Martin, which according to the filmmaker Alain Wieder is a film for everybody with identification points for the viewer. The Martin family does not exist but are fiction written from facts. The story, according to Wieder, is true as is the historical framework. He had used 80% archive material in the film – to recreate history and to establish an ambience.

Whereas the UK and US clips were generally extremely aggressive in terms of reconstruction, drama and sound design, the French examples still showed artistic ambition. Ann Julienne from FR 5 expressed her concern about drama disguised as documentary. “Factual television is taking some liberties,” she said. “It’s good television, but don’t call it documentary.” Janice Hadlow from Channel 4 responded that this is an internal comment, not for the audience. “Good drama and good reconstruction can work. If you get a good source.” Yet she also added, “Remember that money doesn’t deliver success. We need your mind.”

 


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