Through Hyper-Tinted Spectacles
The Australian War Memorial is both shrine and museum, commemorating Australians who died in war. Its collection, used by a range of researchers from broadcast industry to non-profit bodies, includes over 5000 films, such as newsreels, government productions, and amateur films. Film curators acquire contemporary and 20th century material, thus keeping one foot in the past, another in the present, and an eye to the future. The use of film collections in contemporary contexts is of increasing interest to the film curator.
In Their Footsteps (ITF) was a ten part series broadcast on Australian commercial television in 2011. Although presented as a documentary, its format resembled that of a reality television program. In the words of its executive producer, it intended to “shine a new light on Australia’s war time history… make the past come alive”, by engaging viewers with the war experience utilising adapted footage. Colourised both literally and figuratively, it reinforced the emotional impact of the content and the story. Colour of War : The ANZACS (CoW), was a three part documentary series broadcast on Australian commercial television in 2004. It’s name was its aim. Using entirely original to the period colour film to depict Australian WW2 history, it promised a “very personal connection to the war experience”. The Memorial provided film and advice to both productions.
When ITF first went to air, curatorial sensibilities were shaken by the featuring of, to archival eyes, garishly coloured newsreel footage.
Perhaps we should have been grateful that film was made accessible to thousands of viewers, whatever its colour. However colourisation, good or bad, raises questions. ITF was produced at a time when the “memory boom” – “a widespread fascination with activity about the past … connected to war” (Todman) was at its height. One reviewer went so far to say that ITF was “an acknowledgement of national grief … paying tribute to those who underwent devastating personal trauma”. To what extent did the mediation of original footage contribute, and, does it matter? As New Zealand documentary maker Gaylene Preston says: “I don’t think an audience cares how a story is told, so long as it is meaningful and truthful”.
Truthfulness is troublesome. Many think a documentary referencing home movies comes closest to delivering an objective, “truthful” text, while others wish to relax the perceived demarcation between “objective” archive, and, the aesthetic work of the film maker, which demonstrates the film maker’s subjective interpretation. However Bruzzi observes that even simple manipulations can distort the objective interpretation of seemingly “uncontaminated” amateur film, leading to contradictory interpretations. These two productions, sharing the aim of bringing history “to life”, may be interrogated as to ways in which archival, particularly amateur footage, was adapted or contextualised for television. Was the inherent authenticity of the original material compromised?
Each ITF episode featured a normal (non-celebrity) person embarking on a “voyage of discovery”. Information about their war veteran relative is gradually revealed by relatives and historians they meet along the way, in archives and battlefields. This format offers the participant and viewers at home a “mystery” to be solved, and its tempo of sequenced multiple destinations, characteristic of reality shows, sustains viewers’ attention.
Participants rendezvous with informants and emote their responses; their reward is an emotionally cathartic end to the journey, resolving what has hitherto been a grievous familial memory.
In keeping with conventional documentary style, there is “a formal interpreter, whose confident narration suggests that the facts are knowable and their meaning understandable..” (Toplin, 1216). The narrator is veteran actor Bryan Brown. His accent, familiar to Australian audiences, affirms a sense of national identity as he guides viewers on their parallel journey. Musical accompaniment is contemporary, such as the electronic music with strong percussive beat which accompanies official footage of armed forces on the march. This underscores the “now-ness” of the series, neutralising the anxiety that a prime time audience will be bored by historical documentary; as film maker Chris Marker said, “the word ‘documentary’ leaves a trail of sanctimonious boredom behind it” (Bruzzi). ITF ‘s colourful handling of archival footage signals the blazing of a hyper-coloured trail.
Similarly, a variety of effects were applied to archival footage. Besides the “hyper” colouring, a vertiginous fish-eye lens was used on scenes from Kokoda! Front line – the original version won Australia its first Academy Award. Other archival, often amateur footage, is presaged by a simulated film projector; “Picture Start” frames flash by, with the whirring sound of running film. Evoking the pre-digital age of home movie viewing, the viewer is alerted that the following visuals include period film; travelling back in time means making allowance for whatever technical failings it might have.
ITF aligned itself with the Memorial, official keepers of war history, to claim a foundation of trustworthiness from which its stated aim, “bring history to life”, can spring. The on-camera presence of its curators lends credibility to the program, while the opening sequence features the Roll of Honour – bronze plaques listing Australia’s war dead, which reside in the Memorial.
Revealing personal history offers, as reviewer Graeme Blundell says, “a move from a sense of injustice and disorder to a kind of affirmation of some sort of benevolent moral order in the universe” – in other words, if not a happy ending, a satisfying one. After stories and tears, the family mystery –what did happen to Uncle Billy? – was solved. On discovering that her uncle was executed by Japanese forces, Tracey, a participant in the series, speaks of her “burden and responsibility to keep going to get to the truth”. Following a tearful visit to his grave, she reports feeling “a sense of history .. its not a mystery any more, it’s a good history”. In telling the tale of one WW2 casualty, ITF invites the viewer to feel their own family’s story could be told, perhaps establishing Preston’s “meaningful” story as a historical narrative, at a microcosmic level.
Colour of War was a “national interest” program , as described in a promotional blurb , (www.nfsa.gov.au) for government sponsored body Film Australia, and jointly produced by commercial and government bodies. It was billed as utilising all original colour footage to “paint a vividly detailed picture “ of ANZAC forces from WW2 to the end of the Vietnam conflict. Many previously unseen colour films, mostly of the WW2 period, accompany diary and letter extracts, allowing viewers “a very personal connection with war experience, both on the battlefield and on the home front”. CoW’s promotional assurance was that “In colour, shared history becomes even more intimate and involving.. powerful and moving”. It was screened at the 2005 International Documentary conference. Its three 45 minute episodes were themed as : the commencement of WW2; war at home and abroad, and, Korea and Vietnam.
Success of the series was staked in its complete dependence on original, authentically coloured film. The footage was handled lightly; manipulations consisted mainly of close ups, slow-downs and colour grading. Lack of colourisation was its biggest selling point. The voiceover opening the series intones: “The earliest known colour film of ANZAC Day….A glimpse of a time, usually only seen in black and white.. The film has not been colourised. The colour is real”.
Like ITF the series was narrated by another steadfastly Australian actor, Russell Crowe, but as it was scored with period songs and incidental music, its sound scape invokes sombre reflectiveness and furthers the overall aim of connecting with the past.
Colour‘s power to signify authenticity was noted by one reviewer, who said “It takes a while to adjust to the colour footage, which seems so much associated with the era after World War II. But that is the strength of this series, that the soldiers, prisoners.. look so much like people who could be alive today” (Pryor). Colour is integral to engendering trust in the content and a sense of “alive-ness”, which attracts viewers’ attention. The ensuing engagement or investment by viewers is not dissimilar to that observed by curators of objects : “Appropriation [of authenticity] depends on the ability of people to establish relationships with objects and the networks of people and places they embody.. ” (Jones, 189). However, “there is always the question of whether the way [objects] are ..presented might undermine their very authenticity …”. Might adaptions of film in-authenticate them, render them less trustworthy ? In ITF’s case, the footage is used illustratively, as a “complement to other elements” (Bruzzi, 21). Therefore, authenticity is less important than visual spectacle; if the original footage was never bright turquoise, it doesn’t really matter.
Blundell’s response to episode one, “Its an acknowledgement of national grief..” (etc) would not be surprising if applied to a site or ceremony, but its application to a made- for- tv program suggests that commemoration need not be a physically sited practice, it can be experienced virtually. Scates observes that “the urge to commemorate is often deeply ahistorical”. The strong desire to connect with one’s origin drives genealogical research, and finds an ideal vehicle in ITF’s on-screen drama. It allows viewers to fantasise resolutions, and imagine their own potential part in national history.
This deeply personalised approach contrasts with Colour of War which, while inviting emotional engagement, does not portray individuals in microcosm. The voiceovers are directly related to archival footage or, if illustrative, do not focus on contemporary protagonists. An example of achievement of audience engagement is in the Dunbar family’s home movie sequence. An actor reads a letter written from the Front by son Lindsay Dunbar, addressing each family member as they appear on screen. To see them thus addressed, particularly as the narrator intones that the author didn’t return, is emotionally provocative for the viewer. We don’t need to see footage of the young man dying; “banal images privilege the narration, pushing the viewer to fantasise the story being told” (Odin, 260).
This is a “ slippage common in historical documentaries” (Bruzzi, 33), whereby the literal scene depicting (for example) death is missing, but an emotional state relative to loss is evoked in the viewer by the strategic combination of visuals and narration. “…The viewer knows something that the filmmaker at the time did not know : what happens next. This hindsight – aspect of watching home [movies] changes its meaning. The viewer knows more than the image in itself can ever contain”. (Buckingham, 102)] In this case, as you watch their smiling faces, you know they are already dead.
Arising from non-official sources, home movies contain a “latent authority” with which “even the best…feature film or newsreel cannot compete” (Forgacs, 51). Banal yet intimate, they draw the viewer into a past reality. “A home movie image possesses ..psychic force” (Odin, 261). When viewing amateur footage, “..viewers are inspired to reflect on past scenes from their own autobiographies..” (Moran, 140). ITF invited this reflection by personalising its format; archival footage and photographs visualise the “lost” relative, and, by featuring an ordinary person in each episode, ITF spotlights the Everyman. The home viewer assimilates the voyager’s story as their own, which is in keeping with ITF\’s goal of “keeping things real”. ITF uses less home movie footage than CoW but the shared aim, to invoke emotional engagement, is achieved in ITF by the personalisation of each episode and home movie effects, such as the simulated film projector, the seating of a participant before a film projection screen, all recreating the home movie mode.
ITF and CoW had a common aim: to produce a popular war documentary for television. CoW promised a “personal connection” , and ITF promised to “shine a new light” ITF self – consciously coloured and affected footage to enhance its visual appeal, while for CoW, the “naturally” occurring colour of war-era home movies, was an advantage. The appeal of amateur footage, a non-biased, psychically forceful text, provided a meaningful viewing experience, coming almost directly from the archive to the viewer. ITF incorporated a third party, the “voyager”, who invites the viewer to empathise and interpolate their own nostalgia or desires. ITF rarely presented archival footage without special effects, while CoW not only respected but pointed out the original format. Whilst both programs sought emotional engagement, ITF invests in yearning, perceiving a need, in society at large, to connect with one’s military past and further, to resolve grievances of the past in a satisfying way. In such a scenario the authenticity of archive takes second place to the seemingly greater concern of psychological recognition and the subjective “truth” of feeling.
In any case, it’s comforting as a viewer to think that a satisfying conclusion, bringing contentment to all, is just around the next ad break.
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