On the Origin of Species - How We Tell Our Histories
Man’s wish to document history ensued naturally from his need to record the important events that we cannot fully process as they are happening, but which we hope we can study in depth at a later date, if not us ourselves then at least our children. Documenting history is first of all a necessity, meant to compensate for the fallibility of human memory, which distorts facts, sorts, compresses, and reinterprets them. In our desire to faithfully record reality we have established many diverse instruments of documenting history, which we have perfected over the years. With the invention of cinema we thought we had reached an absolute mode of recording historic truth, for what can be more truthful than an image captured as it happens? And yet, more than a century after this turning point and after tens of thousands of films that have been made, it seems that there are now more questions than answers. Before asking ourselves whether anyone can truly understand history, shouldn’t we maybe ask whether anyone can truly document it? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is history in the hands of the one who documents it and in the voice of the one who tells it.
More than histories themselves, this section examines several modes of tackling history in documentary films, exploring various ingenious practices used by filmmakers in their quest of approaching the elusive truth of the past and of accessing historical realities they could not have been present at.
Whether we talk about the photographs made by a Romanian Army regiment during the Second World War and used by Radu Jude and Adrian Cioflâncă in their essay-film “Memories from the Eastern Front,” or more recent images, collected from the chaotic archives of the Internet, such as those used in desktop documentaries (“Forensickness” by Chloé Galibert-Laine and “Bottled Songs 1-2” co-directed by the same author and Kevin B. Lee), both new and older found footage has represented one of the ways in which contemporary filmmakers have been able to access eras gone by and cultures separated by time and place. Documentaries that make use of archives are themselves of an overwhelming variety, from conventional ones, to the essay and personal formats mentioned above.
Immersion in a historical era can also happen through the memories of an individual who has witnessed the events, as in the case of “Landscapes of Resistance,” where we listen to Sonja’s memories - an antifascist fighter from former Yugoslavia - and embark on a poetic visual journey through the places of a painful past that has taken Sonja from her native country to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. A different approach is found in the hybrid essay “Bicentenary,” a film which operates at the border between documentary and fiction, where the images are recontextualized and reinterpreted through sound design and editing to such a degree that they lose their qualities as documents and enter the realm of the imaginary, of symbols, and of fiction. Another method filmmakers use in various ways is that of the reenactment, which can be seen in two films from this year’s selection, namely “The Country,” where, under the pretext of a casting for a film to be made in his grandparents’ village, director Aleksey Lapin performs a delicate dance between fiction and documentary, making us wonder which of the two can encapsulate more truth, and namely “Let's Say Revolution” - a film less interested in rigorous narratives than in blending reenactment with performance and music, resulting in a visually and musically distinct form of poetry meditating and improvising on history rather than recording it directly.