The History Documentary

In 1990, the outstanding hit of the season for PBS was Ken Bums's seven-part recounting of the American Civil War. In 1992, under the guidance of executive producer Zvi Dor-Ner, WGBH launched its own commemorative series called Columbus and the Age of Discovery. And at the beginning of June 1994, one could scarcely turn on a television set without stumbling upon yet another recounting or reinterpretation of the events of D-day and the Normandy landings. Later, we had a twenty-four-part series on the cold war, and in 1998, the BBC released Laurence Rees's The Nazis: A Warning from History.

All these programs illustrate one thing: History has become one of the most basic themes for documentary filmmaking, especially television documentary. One network, the History Channel, is totally devoted to it. The series The American Experience has drawn millions of viewers, while the history-mystery has become one of the sustaining pillars of the Discovery Channel. And with more than $4.5 million going to produce the Vietnam War series, it has also become big business

And why not? The historical documentary is obviously extremely popular and comes in many forms, including straight essay, docudrama, and personal oral histories. It offers tremendous scope and challenge to the filmmaker. Unfortunately, it is also beset with a number of problems both practical and theoretical. The practical matters include the use of archives, the way programs are framed, and the use of experts, witnesses, and narration. The theoretical problems include interpretation, voice, and political viewpoints. And in the background is an academic voice arguing that filmmakers shouldn't even touch history.

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