Monthly Archives: March 2009

Documentary filmmaker as historian Part II

As a follow up to yesterday’s entry about the documentary filmmaker being a historian, I consulted an actual book. I searched through my hard copy of Theorizing Documentary edited by Michael Renov. (The book can be found on Google Book Search, however page 25 is unavailable.)

Renov writes,

“This is perhaps the most elemental of documentary functions, familiar since the Lumières’ “actualités,” traceable to the photographic antecedent. The emphasis here is on the replication of the historical real, the creation of a second-order reality cut to the measure of our desire – to cheat death, stop time, restore loss… interest lies not so much in recovering time past or in simply chronicling daily life – there is little illusion of a pristine retrieval – as in seizing the opportunity to rework experience at the level of sound and image.”

The documentary filmmaker is a historian and curator for the past and present. Deciding what is worthy of curation, is part of the battle as it is for professional historians.

What is important, as brought up by Jonathan Fein’s “Objects and Memory,”
is that the appropriate objects are chosen to symbolize and represent history. Materials shown in a film, should trigger personal emotion and sentiment to viewers in order to be successful.


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Documentary filmmaker as historian

Jonathan Fein gave a talk with the screening of his film, “Objects and Memory,” last night at UMass.

The film showcases the concept of navigating through life via objects which trigger memories, and the preservation of objects we assign value to. The film showcases how materials of September 11th are used to document history and help people remember their lost relations.

The film makes me consider the role of the documentarian as a historian.

Some people kept ash from the fallen towers; a fireman his helmet; a ribbon with a scripture; a pocket book. These objects were donated to museums or held on to and talked about by their beholders.

The concept of saving and what to save is brought up by historians in the film. Professional historians and curators tend to document things from the past, rather than the present. Nonprofessional historians, like those who start ongoing memorials on fences, document the present and create ongoing memorials.

Documentarians can document history, or current events. The question of what to save and what is actually significant rises.

“Every time we go into a museum, we get a narrative and we don’t really think about that,” said Fein.

In documentaries, objects are specifically showcased to tell history and to trigger the memories of viewers conveying an emotional and sentimental connection to the film.

Most items are not valuable, but it is the value we assign to them that matters, said Fein.

The documentarian must pick and choose the objects and stories of the present and past carefully because they are preserving history.

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Ken Burns loses GM funding

Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns‘s funding from General Motors has ended, due to economic hardships the company has been facing.

“The War,” “Jazz,” “The Civil War,” and “Baseball” are some of Burns’s films.

Burns and GM ended a ten-year contract, in which GM sponsored 35 percent of each film’s production costs and associated educational outreach programs. Burns and Florentine agreed to produce ten films. The contract will expire this year and will not be renewed. GM has been a sponsor of Burns’s work for 22 years. GM has spent “millions in underwriting” and had made the contract with Burns in 1999, accoarding to The Detroit News.

Burns’s company, Florentine Films began seeking new sponsorship, according to The New York Times.

Burn’s 12 part, six-hour series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” will air on PBS this September. It features Florida’s Everglades, Acadia, Yosemite, the Gates of the Arctic, and the Grand Canyon.

Watch a video of Burns talking about the national parks series.

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The interviewee struggle in “Waltz with Bashir”

The new animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir” raises some interesting points about interviewees and effectively portraying the truth in documentary films.

Director and writer Ari Folman plays himself in the film. After speaking with friend Boaz Rein Buskila, who has a recurring nightmare, Folman, an Israeli military veteran, is stirred to explore what happened when the Israeli army invaded South Lebanon in June 1982. 20 years later, Folman himself cannot gather memories of an Israeli Army mission he took part in during the first Lebanon War.

Interviews are conducted with friends who were there and others involved. This is what can make things tricky.

According to production notes, “Waltz with Bashir took four years from the moment research began until the final cut.” Research was conducted and testimonies were gathered.

While trying to maintain a documentary authenticity, the entire film was shot in a studio.

According to production notes:

“If Ari interviews Carmi in the film inside a car traveling to Holland, the interview with Carmi took place as the two, Carmi and Ari, sat on two adjacent studio chairs while Carmi held a toy steering wheel in his hands.”

A good reason for using a studio was to properly capture audio so viewers won’t be distracted by background noises of on location interviews.

Animators were aided by studio photography and Folman, who directed the documentary and screened the animations.

In this documentary, as in others, interviewees struggle to remember horrific pasts or refuse to have their image fully represented in the film.

Buskila, who drives the documentary refused to have his image in the film. A professional actor dubbed his speech and actions, and his animation is fictitious.

Carmi Can’an, whose voice is also dubbed by an actor, “At the last moment, two days before the first day of filming, Carmi refused to reveal his face in the film,” according to the documentary’s Web site.

All other characters and images are those of the people in real life.

Using this method, stories that need to be told are told. However, lines between what is the truth and what isn’t the truth are blurred. Endless questions about fiction and nonfiction story telling arise. Folman said in an interview, animation allowed him to have freedom to tell this story.

In documentary and  all forms of nonfiction, the will of the subject to involve themselves in the project and their memory can be a battle.

What’s evident, is that this documentary might not have been produced in any other way if at all.


The New York Times

Rolling Stone


The Washington Times


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Documentary tells story of Model T in WWI

A new historical documentary “Model T’s to War,” which I briefly assisted with, premiered last night on the public television station WGBY channel 57.

The film, produced by Edward and Libby Klekowski and Elizabeth Wilda, narrates the history of Model T ambulances and their American drivers in World War I France.

Klekowski, a retired University of Massachusetts biology professor, and his wife, Libby, were visiting their daughter in Belgium near the Argonne forest when they were inspired by this story. Klekowski said in a WGBY interview that people could take tours in the Argonne’s battlefield just like people would go on tours of historic places like Old Deerfield in Massachusetts.

The Argonne forest, terrain now overgrown and still littered with unexploded weaponry, was a major battlefield during WWI, which the three producers traveled to and filmed. About exploring the fields, Klekowski said, “You’ll find they’re just full of artifacts.”

Assembled with modern video footage of the Argonne forest, is stock footage and photographs taken by soldiers and ambulance drivers.

“Model T’s to War” describes how the American Field Service was created, how the wounded were taken to dressing stations and then to hospitals via the Model T.

According to an article by the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Phoebe Mitchell, Klekowski said Model T ambulances made it possible to rescue the battlefield’s injured, as negotiating the rough terrain was something French vehicles couldn’t do.

Some tidbits the film revealed was the actual radiators of the Model T were used to heat water. Drivers and troops could make hot drinks and bathe using the heated water generated by the radiators. Photographs were even developed using the water and headlights of the vehicle.

In the WGBY interview Klekowski said of the French museums and people encountered while filming the documentary, “They really wanted us to tell this story to American people.”

Fore more information visit:

The Amherst Bulletin

The UMass Amherst Office of News & Information

UMass Arts & Events calendar


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Indian-Americans gaining profile

Indian-Americans are gaining a high profile, reported the Associated Press.

Here’s a brief list I have compiled from recent years and today:

And many more…

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Shepard Fairey on Sunday Morning

Read the article and watch the segment.

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