"All cinema is political."
Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni argued that there is no such thing as cinema free from the ideologies within which it is borne in Cahiers (1969). It's a greatly contested topic, particularly by theorist Andre Bazin, realism's most evangelical supporter. But it's also a great statement because even superficially, it encapsulates all the shit one goes through to make a film, that is, getting all the pieces of the puzzle together, as much as the political entanglements of story itself, known or unknown.
Recently, I heard Producer Andrew Wiseman, of Sister's of War (ABC, 2010) and soon to premiere Parer's War (ABC, 2014), speak on the nature of adapting history to narrative drama. He spoke about truth, memory, history and adaptation. It was a rare insight.
Mr Wiseman noted that when adapting history into narrative drama, that is, documented events and variations of, there are layers of truth and it ultimately boils down to 'where one chooses to shine the light'. He said there was always an inherent process of story, by way of selection and manipulation; the manipulation of story for other layers of truth and history to survive. He spoke about the truth of history, and the ethics of manipulation he has faced in his career of largely adapting history for the screen in narrative form. Importantly, he stressed the danger in appearing to be 'definitive'.
This is a great challenge and ethical concern for documentary filmmakers alike; certain forms of which really do present themselves as fact! Bill Nichols, who wrote the taxonomy of documentary cinema in trying to 'define' it, relevantly stresses in his book Ideology and the Image (1981) the inseparable nature of images and the aesthetic and ideological assumptions they make. Film’s remarkable power to reproduce the indexical image has made it a widely contested medium. But for adaptations, it raises other questions too.
Just how much do you manipulate documented history, to strengthen the truth of the drama? How much do you manage the reality of an event so to realise (release?) the most creative potential of it?
Mr Wiseman made it clear there is no other way around history, in adaptations, but to always suggest it is not definitive, so that it may still be accessed and followed by an audience. He emphasised that the adaptation of history for the screen is only ever one part or story of an historical event. It is never definitive, or "everything there is". He used the term 'synecdoche' meaning 'simultaneous understanding', a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, to express how adaptations are merely one small piece of a much larger story.
"People fashion history...always....Producers condense, symbolise, manipulate material."
Another complication arises entirely if the truth of a history is based on someone's memory, and that memory is implausibly accurate. In doing the research, interviewing witnesses, collecting stories of a particular event, in Mr Wiseman's case a lot to do with World War II - does one remain true to the very honest recollection of a sixty year old memory, though implausible, or the documented fact of historians of that event? A fine conundrum, there is truth in both!
An example that has resurfaced, are the mixed reports of 'martyrdom' by Cassie Bernall, a young victim of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, who was allegedly asked if she believed in God right before she died. Fifteen years later, after several book accounts including the recently released 'She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall', the identity of Cassie as 'the girl who said Yes' is greatly contested by the students of that library on April 20th.
There is no doubt the terror and panic of that situation, and likewise of the survivors of World War II, has influenced the memory of events in each case. This was the case for Mr Wiseman when researching Sisters Of War, based on the true story of a nurse Lorna Whyte and Sister Berenice Twohill who survived as prisoners of war during World War II in Papua New Guinea. They fiercely believe they heard the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 while captive, when they were nowhere within earshot of it.
Jorge Luis Borges said:
Man's memory shapes
It's own Eden within.
These examples attest to the infalliblity of memory, furthermore when under extraordinary stress. Importantly, the quote above also alludes to the uncertain and messy nature of confronting different kinds of truth and reality, in the adaptation of personal and historical accounts of events; the subjectivity of selection and recollection.