Letter about Effective Historical Narrative, Documentaries, and Cultural Trauma

Excerpt from a letter sent today, 7/11/13:

I would like you to see some James Benning documentaries and tell me what you think.  He is more on the conceptual/visual arts realm of the documentary spectrum, and of course he doesn’t portray truth, just truth as he sees it, or at least education to some degree.  Historical Narratives are a tricky bitch and in the modern era, with memory constructed through the flash of images on a screen or through photographs that don’t really give you a sense of what the image IS, (like if I look at a picture of my grandfather from 50 years ago it tells me nothing of the last fifty years unless I compare it to another photo, or does it?  see Roland Barthes “Camera Lucida” for more,) and humans seems to learn through stories (certain narratives,) rather than image, but the art of telling the story is lost, so all we have is image.  And when a story is told well (a rarity) it normally uses the tricks of melodrama and manipulation of the emotions to provide an effect.  We tell people who they are and they believe us because how do they know otherwise?  Joshua Oppenheimer got around this trap by having the killers tell their OWN stories, and the process of memory creation brought forth a humanizing change within the subjects of The Act of Killing.  I talked to him for a while the other day, and a lot of his opinions about Indonesians are the same as mine about Austrians.  Of course my opinion means nothing, but the presentation of material within a powerful and meaningful construct, allowing for contemplation of a phenomenon is worth spending time and energy on…I guess.  James Benning seems to be able to walk this line, through his documentary we saw a few days ago, “Stemple Pass,” he shows four identical shots, except for the change in season as he reads Ted Kazinsky’s(sp?) journals from a replica of the Una-bomber’s cabin.  Of course, he is allowing for time to create contemplation on the words that are being spoken and for the viewer to actually think about what is being presented.  In our modern culture, how much do we actually think about what we see?  Even if it is good?  We leave the theater, and maybe if it is people like you and me we actually discuss the themes and concepts behind the documentary we have seen, but we soaked it up as a series of images that are politics as art.  I like how Benning has done this and I would like to try a similar approach to the Flakturm Documentary.  I need the image and I need facts, but the time of “talking heads” documentaries is over.  Of course, having only four shots in a two hour film is really asking a lot of the audience, but you have to trust them, and I respect how much he trusts me.  And I want to give him that in return.  I would love to have this kind of relationship with who I create my art for.  This is obviously not for everyone.  But this is one way to provide a truth for the artist where I can feel like I at least am trying to be honest and NOT pushing a historical narrative as manipulation.  I do not want to point a finger…I just want to understand.  I live a stone’s throw from the Flakturm at Esterhazy Park.
Frank Ankersmit has a great article that has explained some concepts dealing with repressed cultural memory due to the experience of trauma or the sublime and how it affects cultural identity.  Cultural forgetting through the act of memory repression leading to either an eventual discourse and catharsis or the immediate creation of a new identity to disassociate one from the traumatic event.  But at the same time you know of your old identity.  It is like if a woman is shown an old photograph of herself from before a traumatic experience and she doesn’t recognize who she sees, but she KNOWS IT IS HER.  Was the dialogue ever opened in Austria?  Some people I talk to think it was, most think it wasn’t.  It is still an interesting debate over what the hell to do with a Flakturm.  How is memory constructed to form an Austrian cultural identity when the traumatic events experienced remain in the unconscious through a lack of dialogue?   In the Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer humanizes the killers so we can understand them.   I passed a monument to the dead soldiers of the Wehrmacht during the Anschluss years in the Styrian town of Admont two nights ago.  It does not humanize these people to provide understanding, even if it is from the perspective of heroes or villains…the old trapings of historical narrative to appeal to politics and a sense of regionalism or nationalism.  Who were these people and where is the material that tells us who they were for us to contemplate?

Scott Evans


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s