Saturday, August 1, 2009

Identifying the "Real Deal"

From Kenn: Currently, I’m co-producing a two-hour history of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) for PBS with Paradigm Productions in Berkeley. In many ways, the Mexican Revolution was the first war that could be watched by the public, virtually from start to finish, on film, much as Vietnam was considered the first true television war. The footage we’ve collected starts as early as 1898; there is journalism, there is fiction, there is propaganda, and there is even the participation of Hollywood. Almost all of it originated on 35mm nitrate, that fragile format, subject to disintegration and afraid of the lit match. 35mm nitrate is also, probably the most beautiful visual format ever – capable of rendering a tremendous range of tonal values and detail.

Some archives and collectors are currently restoring their footage, given the upcoming centenary next year, and the anticipated need for a variety of producers, researchers, and others to access this material. This is exciting for us, but will the restoration work be done in time for our production deadlines? Other archives either don’t have the financial resources, or have not made restoration a priority. Since (as is good archival practice) they don’t want us touching their original film, and we hardly have the budget for major restoration ourselves anyway, we’re often faced with later generation film or, in some cases, outdated videotape formats of this material.

Stills are less of a problem – they’ve been maintained lovingly by those who have held them for a century, and there may be cases where we use these stills in lieu of footage that is hard to decipher, or doesn’t look as good. We all know that still photographs can be made to live with a little visual choreography.

The project is interesting, from another archival point of view as well: in many cases cataloguing is scarce, and the film, which has been edited again and again into different documentaries and news pieces, exists in various conditions and states of completeness in various places. Often the silent film intertitles or other clues we have found contradict each other. Therefore, we are often left guessing whether that wide shot of a field with plumes of smoke in the distance is from one battle or another, from 1911 or from 1921. In fact, over 50% of the smoke we see from guns and canons is white, leaving us to wonder if these weapons were firing “blanks,” meaning those shots are probably re-creations. We look for the occasional black smoke, which might signify this is the “real deal.” Even archivists and scholars who have examined the film over the years continually revise their own ideas of what they are looking at: A lovely corn harvest scene that originally was identified as 1908 prompts further examination and is revised as being from 1910. Going back to the film later, the owners conjectured that 1920 is more likely, “but we can’t be sure.” Just like the Mexican soldiers, we’re shooting at a moving target.

I'm thinking about how to develop a compelling way to address all this in of our film, in order to both acknowledge our own awareness of these issues and to cue the audience in on what I call our “working vocabulary.” Key to documentary ethics is making sure the audience isn’t mis-led regarding what they are seeing and hearing.

How do we make these “problems” into a positive, rather than a negative? The Mexican Revolution, for a century, has been very much about revisionism and myth-making. There are so many false assumptions and misunderstandings because there have always been both political and artistic reasons to paint some figures as heroes, others as villains, ignore still others, develop false causes and effects, and generally “use” the history for one’s own purposes. Rather than add to this myth-making, we want to address this issue of history versus mythology head-on, throughout the film. We hope to invite the audience to join us on this exploration and have them appreciate the uniqueness of what they’re seeing; the historical and audiovisual mysteries we ourselves are grappling with. If we do this right, between the film and its accompanying website, the audience will join us in examining this material as an archeologist might examine an unearthed fragment – sometimes sure of what they are looking at and how it fits into the pattern of events long-gone, but sometimes only at the beginning of a journey of understanding.