Some filmmakers working with the feature documentary genre want to reconnect us with History itself, enticing audiences to actively engage with the ever-changing, politically motivated interpretations of our recent history. Three films reconstruct historical documentary by changing the form and by providing an intense participatory experience through their main character.

Pamela Cohn
Originally from Los Angeles, California, Pamela now makes her home in Berlin, Germany.Currently, she is a contributing writer and editor for several publications and websites such as FILMMAKER Magazine, DOX Magazine, BOMB Magazine, Guernica, Senses of Cinema, and Desistfilm.

I’ve seen quite a few films lately that are reconstructions of historical events in the recent past, films that stand out for their vigilant practice of exercising every non-fiction filmmaker’s imperative: the freedom to be honest. What connotes “honesty” in documentary and how the blending of fiction (re-enactments) and reality (archival and live interviews) enhance one another to create singular storytelling of a particular event is of course a part of this discussion. In some instances, a filmmaker can, and does, take advantage of the ability to draft the individual who actually lived through those events to not only talk and reflect upon that experience, but to also re-live it for the camera, creating a profoundly moving and memorable (or re-remembered) experience.

There is a new facility in doing a reconstructed historical documentary that, to my mind, is revolutionary for the form. There are still a lot of very stodgy ways of presenting history and historical events: factual television is full of the generic stuthat will show us stilted recreations alongside archival photos and video, narrated by an unctuous “voice” reciting badly written narration.

The featured filmmakers presented here – Ian Olds, director of The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, Greg Barker, director of Sergio, and Anders Østergaard, director of Burma VJ – choose to use various creative tools in their arsenal, not only to re-envision an authentic account of how things went down, but to also cratheir films in very cinematic ways, borrowing much from the narrative tradition. It is a very dynamic, engaging, and, most importantly, highly emotional type of storytelling, providing an intense participatory experience for a viewer. And isn’t that why we go to the movies?

While our corporate media outlets often let important particular (his)stories quickly vanish, these filmmakers and these films are determined to make us remain part of them.

Ian Olds’ latest film, The Fixer, is, in essence, a tribute to a young man – an Afghan journalist and “fixer” and interpreter for foreign journalists from the West – who lost his life by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One could also say that Ajmal Naqshbandi was born, lived his life and worked in a country, Afghanistan, where a man of his intelligence and dedication could easily become fodder for a wide array of parties with various agendas. The Fixer maintains its primary commitment – to tell the truth – in a very distinctive way. As Olds stated in an interview with Robyn Hillman-Harrigan in The Huffington Post: “I felt that just to focus on loss does a profound disservice to the truth, and to Ajmal. A focus on this devastating loss is something that we as a western audience can relate to, but to focus on this man’s life in the context of what’s really going on in that country, is history empowered.”

The viewer knows from the first few seconds of the film that the main subject has died under some pretty brutal circumstances at the hands of Taliban captors. Olds continues: “. . . he died at a very specic moment, in a specic place.The aim of the film is to invoke this web of history and power in which he was caught, while never losing sight of the man.” Olds’ anti-chronological editing works to great effect. One of the reasons why he starts the film as he does is that he distinctly did not want to use Ajmal’s death as any sort of dramatic device. After knowing the outcome of the featured subject, the rest of the film tries to answer the question: Why? Rather than a strict linear narrative, the film tries to answer the question through ashes back and forth for the sole purpose of “unravelling meaning.”

The unending struggle of a people to make something out of what history has made of them

Olds talks about Afghanistan as a “buffer state,” a land divvied up between various power players, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, etc. He also sees Ajmal as a “buffer” individual, placing himself between the Italians, the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S, becoming an analogue for the place within which he resides. Olds told me that he comes from the narrative tradition and planned to make narrative features. But through his work with documentary filmmaker Garrett Scott, he discovered that the context of time and place should be uncompromising: A film “shouldn’t be just a drama unfolding or a certain circumstance or set of circumstances. It should be about an idea.” As Scott taught him, he chooses to parse these ideas with a “cold eye and a warm heart,” an innate sensibility of both the journalist and the artist.

Greg Barker’s Sergio puts the focus on the consummate UN-diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. In the last years of his life, de Mello was reluctantly persuaded by Ko Anaan (then Secretary General of the UN), Condoleezza Rice (then US Secretary of State under George W. Bush), and Tony Blair (then British Prime Minister), to take on the position as United Nations ambassador to a freshly invaded Iraq – a war to which de Mello was vehemently opposed. And then died in the midst of that invasion. On August 19th 2003, a deadly bomb struck the UN headquarters in Baghdad where de Mello was working. For the first time in history, the United Nations had become a target of terrorism, with de Mello, the superstar representative of all that the UN purportedly strove to achieve on the world stage, as a victim.

Filmmaker Greg Barker recreates the events of that day in a very forceful and visceral way, expertly melding harrowing, and extremely emotional, testimony from Sergio’s fiancée, Carolina Larriera, and the military paramedics who risked their own lives to try and save him. Sergio is based on activist Samantha Power’s biography, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World. The film combines the haunting archival footage shot on the day of the bombing in Baghdad with dramatic re-enactments of the rescue attempt by Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine. These two U.S. Army reservists struggled to save de Mello and Gil Loescher, a civilian expert on refugees – both trapped underneath the rubble from the explosion. They were able to save Gil, having to make tortuous decisions on the spot. They were not, however, able to save de Mello. The two men, in operatic and devastating re-enactments, re-live that day again in the film, generously sharing their pain and fear with the rest of us. The emotional impact of watching this cannot be overstated – it resides in the marrow of a collective traumatic memory.

Barker is an experienced journalist and factual television producer with a background in international relations and economics. He has filmed and worked in more than 50 countries on six continents, always drawn to “character-driven stories that also illuminate how global politics really work – about who wins, who loses, what the real priorities are behind politicians’ lofty rhetoric.”.

Called by Power “a mix between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy,” Sergio de Mello immersed himself in the world’s complexities, inhabiting the grey area between “right” and “wrong.” is is the same grey area where director Barker finds he can tell complex stories, the place where real progress in our understanding of the world around us is made.

Barker lived overseas during the G.W. Bush reign and witnessed the decline of America’s power and appeal on the world stage due to a rogue presidential administration. The innate understanding necessary to cra a film like this is a direct result of learning how to confront and accept “the other,” while also being that “other” in a country not your own. Ultimately, it enabled him to make a film where a turning point in the history of Iraq is given a deeper significance through one man’s experience and his personal commitment to making peace between the nations at war.

The intimate moment in a life, hidden from history, that tells us everything about what it means to be human.

Burma VJ displays a visceral insight into civilian journalism and dissidence in the police state that Burma is. The film provides a thorough, painstaking and outright thrilling documentation of the dramatic days of September 2007, when Buddhist monks led a citizen march for peace and freedom against a repressive régime.

Anders Østergaard’s overriding desire when making non fiction films is to “go inside space and time, to fight the ‘provincialism’ of time.” He also explains that there is a whole way of working with archival footage as a graphical element – another ingredient to create context, emotion, mood, tension, and a deep connection with the material when positioned within a speci c context. It still qualifies unequivocally as documentary: “ The truth is an inspiration and the details [of that truth] give one the texture of the story.”

It is, indeed, the case in all three of these films, that the veracity of the facts gives texture and allows us to understand the world as it is, not how we wish it could be. To communicate is the overarching imperative; this is not “experimental” in terms of storytelling. The political energy of the footage speaks for itself and it asks to be framed for the biggest emotional impact possible. Yet as Østergaard points out, “We can never be a slave to the footage for it is not the quality of that footage, but its political relevance that is utmost in importance. You lose clarity otherwise and the focus of the main event, the ‘History,’ gets clouded by irrelevant footage.”

In his essay from 2007, That’s How the Light Gets Out, critic Walter Mosley says that, “Non-fiction is almost always an attempt to manipulate attitudes and ideas by presenting certain bits of information while ignoring others…. the successful documentary film must present a subject that is believable and whole, like a character in a novel.”

It is the revelation of the heroes from history’s shadows that will, hopefully, continue to push the way historical documentaries are crafted. Their stories can give us the lesser-known elements of the past, stories that feature different racial, ethnic and gender perspectives on history. Stories that reveal the remarkable power and importance of ordinary lives. For a complete picture of the past, we need those stories and that, of course, is where dramatic recreations become relevant. They fill in the blank spaces in the form of notes: the little-known events that now can be seen as a turning point; the intimate moment in a life, hidden from history, that tells us everything about what it means to be human. These notes from history overlooked create a new dialectic in form and content, proposing no final answers except the unending struggle of a people to make something out of what history has made of them. at makes for quite a powerful hybrid of sorts, if you will, for which the cinematic pieces presented here are good examples.

In the course of telling these stories something gets demolished – the hard and fast categories of fiction and documentary melt away. There is an insistence that both forms are equally mediated by the intention of the filmmaker, and that that hybrid thus requires a fresh critical stance and a more precise notion of this dialectical imperative on the part of (a thinking) audience. It can help redefine some of the more cherished assumptions of a documentary film experience. These filmmakers have beautifully shown us that the drama of one human life deserves as much.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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