Documentaries: Activity 3

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Making History Come Alive

Historical documentaries explore a past event or period of time or the life of someone who lived in the past. Finding visual material for a historical documentary can be difficult. Archival photographs, letters, and face-to-face interviews with historians and scholars are some of the sources historical documentarians draw on. Other filmmakers use actors to re-create events based on the historical record, or to read the words of a historical person onscreen.

Using re-enactments and actual newsreel footage of American soldiers, John Ford and Gregg Toland directed a film account of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7th (1943).

Historical documentaries can provide a comprehensive look at a topic, such as the series Eyes on the Prize (1987), which examines the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Others, like the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, about the four girls killed by a bombing in a Birmingham, Alabama, church, focus on a smaller, more specific part of history.

Other historical documentaries uncover the story behind the official reports. For The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), filmmakers Marcel Ophuls and Andre Harris combined French and German newsreel footage from the World War II period with more recent interviews with politicians, members of the French Resistance, victims of the Nazis, and members of various political factions to draw a complex picture of the country during wartime.

Historical documentaries are not always about weighty subjects. Stacey Peralta’s 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, for example, traces the history of skateboarding in one particular California community.

Some documentaries take on historical importance as time passes. The silent 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a City, uses a poetic style to portray one day in the life of the city. Filmmakers Walther Ruttman and Karl Freund arranged images of the city such as weaving telephone lines, train tracks dividing and coming together, and offices filled with typewriters and telephones to create visual rhythms and patterns, accompanied by a symphonic score. Seen today, the film shows what it was like in that particular city at that specific time in a more immediate way than does a history book.

Using Nazi military imagery and dynamic camerawork, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl created Triumph of the Will (1935), a film still known as one of the most controversial ever made.

Biographical films record not only the lives of famous individuals from the past such as Michelangelo or Rosa Parks, but also those of seemingly ordinary people. The short documentary Sewing Woman (1983) concerns documentarian Arthur Dong’s mother, who emigrated from China to San Francisco and worked for over 30 years in the garment industry. Through her eyes, the audience witnesses Chinese customs, U.S. immigration policies and other problems faced by new immigrants. Barbara Sonneborn’s film Regret to Inform (1998) looks back at the Vietnam War by examining its effect on the wives and families who were left behind.

Individual lives often reflect the history of their times. Even stories about contemporary people can have historical interest. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision finds the roots of the artist’s vision in her family background. It looks at her work, from the powerful Vietnam Veterans and Civil Rights memorials to more personal pieces and, at the same time, reveals the strong feelings that still surround the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. The 1995 documentary, Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, shows the sports hero’s struggle against the racism of his time, and Aaron’s efforts to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record.

Show your students a historical or biographical documentary. Have them research one of the events or people in the film, using books, magazines, newspapers and the Internet, and have them record all their sources. You might also have them prepare a timeline. Ask them what they learned about the event or person that the documentary did not tell them, and if that changes the way they think about the film. Have them identify the filmmaker’s slant on the story and consider whether the film presents an accurate and fair recounting of the subject. Ask them to discuss which version they found the most interesting and why.

Supplemental Activity

Have your students each interview an older person about his or her history. Ask them to organize what they’ve learned in a way they feel makes the best story and present it to the class.