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History and film/broadcasting


Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, instead of working on a job application I decided to attend a conference organized by former QUB Prof. of Film Des Bell and Irish historian Dr Fearghal McGarry, entitled 'Reframing History: film, television and the historians'. Interestingly, a few months back I attended some events during the BBC's Festival of History and Broadcasting (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-17033362). Many issues were raised yesterday that I've been pondering since February, and here are a few musings.

One common debate was the integrity of televised historical documentary series or programmes. Many argue that the information is 'dumbed down' and the audience's intelligence insulted. The reality we are in now is that tabloid-esque broadcasting has generated a vicious supply-demand cycle in which the bulk of TV viewers seem to desire 'reality' shows and docu-dramas such as X-Factor, Geordie Shore, Big Brother, TOWIE, etc. For me, a lot of these shows edge depressingly into Baudrillardian hyperreality to a point where the viewers of these shows - in a similar way to followers of soaps I'm afraid - care about the characters/personae (devoid of actual personality) as if they are real people rather than caricatures of whatever will get ratings and the glory of magazine interviewers, causing the reality-fiction boundary to rupture. How are commissioners who want to transmit informative quality programming to compete with this hunger for superficial escapism? Television documentaries are perhaps not always challenging because audience demand must be met. The Catch 22 is that many broadcasters along the way have created that desire for more simplistic narratives and conveyance of ideas (i.e. a demand generated by the supplier). We indirectly informed that we want to watch EastEnders or endless bloody sport, and if we don't like it we are welcome to re-runs on Dave or GOLD. This notion of dumbing down leads to the related concern of how histories are told. 

History and film-making are kindred spirits in that they both provide means and modes for storytelling. Regarding the twentieth century, they are one in the same, they shaped each other's stories and avenues for storytelling. Questions were asked about the conventions adhered to by broadcasters ( I think by Daniel Jewesbury - I really don't care if I've spelt that wrong). There are experimental documentaries being made, excellent ones making diverse use of archival material that interrogate both the histories as they played out (or are perceived to have played out) and the very media through which they are expressed. For now, the likes of Duncan Campbell's pseudo-documentaries that are his personal Beckettian responses to individual media icons, belong in alternative spaces of exhibition and reception, safe from audiences whose main concerns lie with who fancies who in Made in Chelsea. Above all for me the nature of video installation, specifically the fact that most are played on a perpetual loop, is prevalent to notions of history-telling. It never really ends or begins in the same way as films or books - stories - must. The loop also provides a continual presentness. History is relevant because it is remembered. When we remember the past becomes present and is renewed. This does not belong on TVs in domestic settings, but certainly on screens removed from those.

A significant point that these discussions have led me to want to make and explore is that the history of the Troubles ought to be compiled with full recognition that it was a mediatized war and a media construct that led to very real suffering. Many accounts exist across many media, but I have never come across anything that acknowledges the extent to which the documenters of history were actually manipulating and shaping the conflict proceedings. I suspect they contributed just as much, perhaps more-so, than any perpetrators of violence. A while back I was aware of researchers looking into UTV, BBC and RTE news archives and finding evidence of journalists/photographers 'directing' situations, but haven't heard of any movement here for a while and would be most interested to hear from anyone with further knowledge or thoughts on this.

Looking back now on the twentieth century is exciting for these reasons. Our culture in NI - verbal, visual, everything - is permeated with references to Hollywood films and American television. When those cameras turned to look at us, I think a fascination with the self-image came about and has steadily grown.  These are all burgeoning thoughts that I'm going to develop over the next while to see where they go.

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