Saturday, January 22, 2011


Last night I received a wonderful gift: the book accompanying Ken Burns' miniseries The Civil War autographed by Burns himself! How appropriate, in this 150th anniversary year to receive that. Hard to believe his miniseries is now more than 20 years old. It got me to thinking about the best documentaries I've ever been able to watch, many of them ones that I use in my class.

Actually, documentaries are something I'm pretty snobbish about, probably because of the impression Burns' series left on me. His was one of the first documentaries I really remember ingesting (I think I watched it in the early 1990s while still in high school). But when one is first exposed to that as a way of telling history, it's hard to accept a lot of what one now sees as documentaries.

Anyway, here are the best documentaries I've had the chance to see.

Ken Burns' The Civil War: This might be indispensable watching for the American. First of all, it is a very neat narrative of the conflict that happened so long ago and which, in my opinion, fairly redefined the political culture of the nation. Moreover, it's told so darn well. He blended common voices and perspectives of the DWEMs seamlessly. And it is amazing how he can hold our attention for nearly ten hours of programming without any meaningful live action. It's all stills, except for live-action shots of battlefield scenes as they are today or live-action of historians musing on events. Some of the best sequences included "The Meteor" about John Brown's raid, "Shiloh" about the first horrific battle of the war (in 1862), and the documentary's treatment of Appomattox Courthouse. Those latter two segments drove me to visit those sites. Getting David McCullough to provide the narration was a stroke of genius, and the cast of stars who narrate historical figures (i.e. Morgan Freeman for Frederick Douglass) only lend weight to the production.

The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 is required viewing if one wants to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I can't remember a more moving introduction ever to a museum experience. It begins as history, ends as a religious experience. Seriously. Most of the audience in that little theater shouted "Amen" at the end of it. The documentary explains what brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968 and primarily relies on the perspective of a Memphis pastor who spent the last hour of King's life with King and Ralph Abernathy that fateful evening. There's humor, there's a powerful Christian message, there's powerful foreshadowing of the tragedy. Watching it even at home is a powerful experience.

Another wonderful museum documentary is the one made in 1989 for the Johnstown Flood Museum. In some ways it's the antonym for Burns' style; after a Burns'-like profile of what Johnstown looked like before the flood, the film re-tells the story of the flood. It does so with amazing tact and deftness. Actors play out soundless scenes of the impending tragedy against lyric narration. The opening line of the flood story attributes the flood's genesis to a storm somewhere over Kansas. This film both powerfully tells the story of the flood itself and the social dimensions implicit in the flood. Brilliant.

Shoah is a documentary I have only seen parts of, but the parts of it I've seen have really made it impossible for me to watch much of anything else regarding the Holocaust. This is solemnly powerful in a way I don't think anything else can replicate. This was a groundbreaking documentary that retells the horrors of the Holocaust without using historical footage. The long documentary is held together by filmed interviews with survivors and perpetrators. Occasionally there will be narration of primary documents from the Holocaust. Dr. Birkner in my methods class showed us three scenes from it to demonstrate how history can be creatively and powerfully told. I'll probably never shake the paradoxically dry but powerful recollections in the three scenes I watched, in particular the interview with the barber survivor. Unfortunately this is a nearly impossible video to obtain in the U.S.

Dear America is a 90-minute documentary of the Vietnam War that might become required watching for the American citizen. This HBO-produced documentary relies entirely on archival and news footage from America's longest war. There is no narration really. What you hear against the music are actors reading letters sent from Vietnam or from loved ones to their soldiers and sailors. Usually the viewer sees news clips (with their original audio) interspersed with narration from letters set against music and archival music. The pacing is just right. But the most brilliant moment in the film comes about halfway through when the film takes the viewer on a journey through a helicopter raid. Set against the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" we see footage shot from helicopters and journalists accompanying soldiers and graphics walk us through a soldier's glossary, defining terms such as "LZ," "VC," and "Search and Destroy." I find it meaningful. The students are engrossed. I can't imagine the power for those who lived through the Vietnam War Era.

There are other worthy documentaries, often on topics more economic and political than what you see here. I could nominate Inside North Korea as another historical film, but it seems more political. These are the five most moving depictions of history I've seen in the documentary format.

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