Charles L. Geshekter. 'The Page Versus the Screen: The Historian as Film Producer'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 147-52.


Charles L. Geshekter

Historians use encoded forms, primarily printed and spoken words, to describe, analyse and interpret the past. We hope that colleagues will convey our material to students, incorporate our insights into their own scholarship, and engage us in critical discourse.(1) As we make our commentaries accessible in print, some of us may even prefer an audience that remains small and select, reasoning with Voltaire that "a popular book has 500 readers, a serious one has fifty."

This paper argues, on the contrary, that scholarship about African history should also be disseminated through electronic media. Especially since African culture seldom seems to be taken seriously by the American (and from what I can gather the Australian) public, they deserve an opportunity to receive a more balanced representation of African life by knowing something about the creativity and richness of the arts and humanities. Historians can contribute to that educative process by attempting to communicate beyond their own ranks to a variety of non-academic audiences. By so doing, we might better challenge media stereotypes that represent African countries as collections of poverties, problems, and pathologies about which we either laugh or lecture, or show generosity or apathy.

Furthermore, a film made for TV facilitates the presentation of scholarship in a way that can improve links between academics and the public. TV can widen the audience for knowledge about Africa and help close the gap between specialists and the general public. But whereas the scholar generally assumes a high degree of motivation among those who listen to his lectures or read his publications, TV audiences are under no such compulsion. They want to relax or be entertained, an important difference between the TV public and academic audiences which obliges the historian-as-filmmaker to keep an eye on form, content, and pacing in an effort to provide responsible entertainment.

Film can reduce the division between so-called elite and popular art by establishing a vital interplay between them, a process which many African cultures already accomplish through public performances. In popular art forms, the artist or performer tries to involve his entire audience, creating a community not a specialised coterie limited to the initiated. Richard Schechner cautions that, unlike the intensity of a live performance, films and TV cannot generate the same collective energies among their audiences.(2) However, "collective energies" are not necessarily what a filmmaker intends to generate. Some documentaries do try to arouse action while others seek to reflect a viewpoint, to report, or to interpret.

Film has the power to disseminate historical findings to mass audiences in a manner that provides responsible entertainment and enlightenment. "The potential of film to absorb and renew the other arts," claims Leo Braudy, "is reflected in the potential of film criticism to be the crossroads of humanistic study rather than just another outpost." This is brought about by "the inclusive nature of film, the way it can bring together the older arts in newer and different combinations."(3)

Transforming material into cinema entails changes in terminology, techniques, and execution similar in scope to the shifts required when one uses printed words to describe a live performance. Making a film is quite different from writing because film is not only a language but a visual art and a technique combining various forms to create a world of imagination, information and consciousness, a critical distinction evidently misunderstood by some writers. For instance, in a review of the 1984-85 TV mini-series, The Jewel in the Crown (broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States), one author complained that "carefully constructed chapters, with time warps, kaleidoscopic episodes, slow shifts of emphasis, all essential elements of the novelist's art, are smoothed out, simplified, processed ... for the little screen."(4) One need only see what happened when films were made of Graham Greene's novels to realise the potential for disastrous results, especially if the author (or scholar) is not involved in the screenplay itself. Bernard Malamud expressed gratitude, however, for the 1984 film The Natural based on his novel of the same title, because, even though the movie portrays a happy ending for its baseball hero instead of Malamud's pessimistic and sardonic conclusion, the author was pleased with the result because it enabled him "to be recognised as an American writer."(5)

Although documentary filmmakers have abandoned the term "cinema verite" in favour of "direct cinema", the belief persists that camera and sound equipment can somehow record reality directly, producing the "natural language" of the cinema, the magical notion that "seeing is believing". In fact, the camera is not a neutral recording device and the humanist as filmmaker alters, affects, and transforms the substance of any performance (poetry recitation, drama, or dance) in making a mediated product of it. Moreover, regardless of how much the repetition in an oral tradition...

may be governed by a wish to repeat accurately what has been handed down, it always entails an element of performance. Like story-tellers everywhere, the performer is alert to the atmosphere among his audiences and his sense of what is acceptableto them. Each retelling of the story is likely to be textually distinct from the one before, as the content becomes subtly adjusted to social expectations.(6)

Once objects lose their three-dimensionality, the images of human actions (such as a performance) that appear on a screen are never authentic. Cinematic images are artificial. They don't move. There is only apparent motion caused, of course by the movement of celluloid through the projector. Film belongs within an artistic tradition that tries to help audiences see better. It offers a convincing representation, an impression of reality, that expands one's ability to interpret and understand the world of visible things by attempting to articulate between what is seen and what is not seen.

To be usable in film, original or authentic music too must be transformed and restructured, made agreeable and compatible as "sound" in order to add another dimension to a flat screen. Cinema compresses the range of music, overemphasises melody, and deemphasises accompaniment in order to impose an image character on the sounds. In documentaries, the primacy of speech on the soundtrack obliges the filmmaker to locate sounds within the images. In the attempt to unite sound and sight, audio is subordinated to the visual with film music heard in relation to images. As my film, The Parching Winds of Somalia, portrays the history and culture of Somali city-dwellers and nomads, it reproduces the sounds of spoken Somali through poetic messages, interspersing contemporary Somali music for background effect with bits of European orchestral scores occasionally inserted for dramatic tension effects.(7)

Watching a film merely involves apparent movement through the "flicker" effect comprehended through the eyes. While not an organ itself, the retina is a specialised part of the brain which processes a great deal of visual information before sending it down the optic nerve to the rest of the brain where neurological and cultural information is accumulated.(8) This linguistic capacity or "cross-model processing" of the brain accounts for the extraordinary, specific, and uniquely human ability to process and integrate information received through different sensory systems. Since we acquire most of our knowledge about the external world through our eyes, "the abilities that we have in the way of memory and imagination, of symbolism and emblem, are all conditioned by the sense of sight."(9)

The Parching Winds of Somalia is an attempt to take historical materials and design them for communication through cinema. Its production was a case study of collaboration between filmmakers and an historian which exemplified the inherent difficulties and potential rewards of such an undertaking. Developed in partnership with state agencies in Somalia with funding from the United States, making The Parching Winds of Somalia became unusually complex primarily because the original filmmakers attempted to fundamentally shift the structure of the project away from its original format. The process of writing and rewriting scripts, assemblage of visual materials, search for funds, identification of experienced personnel (and their subsequent replacement), and international collaboration in a region of Africa embroiled in war wrought vacillation between enthusiasm and despair - an emotional roller coaster ride familiar among filmmakers - which imposed physical, mental and intellectual demands perhaps novel to a historian.(10)

According to historian Paul Smith, unless the historian...

... has some grasp of the nature of film and the basic procedure involved in using it as a medium of expression, he is going to find difficulty in ensuring that the media specialists produce the kind of result he wants ... the academic should know enough to be his own producer.(11)

Production of Parching Winds was a protracted process that demystified filmmaking for me. It confirmed that practical experience in coping with the financial, logistical, and morale problems involved in shooting in distant locations probably is the prerequisite for an African historian to fully comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of that medium.(12) My experience suggests that the historian who attempts to translate scholarly materials onto a cinematic format should not accept merely a consultative or advisory role but must be prepared eventually to function as the producer.

Whether making a film or gathering (oral) evidence about the past, the historian always mediates his subject matter:

In an interview each party is affected by the other. It is the historian who selects the informant and indicates the area of interest; and even if he or she asks no questions and merely listens, the presence of an outsider affects the atmosphere in which the informant recalls the past and talks about it ... the notion of a direct encounter with the past is an illusion, but perhaps nowhere more than in the case of testimony from hindsight. The "voice of the past" is inescapably the voice of the present too.(13)

For historical material disseminated in printed form or displayed through film, the effectiveness of its message depends on content, process, and structural format. Content refers to analysis and interpretation of the basic information, its confirmation with evidence, the story crafted by a historian thoroughly familiar with the subject matter. Process entails the assembly, treatment, and transmission of the contents from a comprehensive yet precise viewpoint that focuses the audience's attention, enabling it to understand the details. The format is the mode of display or a style of exposition for historical findings either on a printed page, on TV, or projected through film.

Content and process for documentary films are initially similar to historical writing and both involve acts of communication. The cinematic format, however, imposes significant shifts in terms of what it can say, show, or explain on the screen compared to the printed page, differences which inevitably affect content and process in that medium. A film is a fabricated narrative structure, the manifestation of the social and intellectual activity of the filmmakers. A major difference between how one treats a subject in print and what one attempts to show on film lies in a sense of the "uninterruptible". Watching a film, unlike reading, demands continuous attention lest we "miss something". It is the "continuity of audience concentration and the continuity of visual context and style that hold these potentially discrete and detachable objects together ... Movies interrogate reality not by recording objects, but by establishing a frame of time within which objects can achieve momentary meaning."(14) The sense of continuity and impression of movement achieved through cinematic connections linking an array of visible objects, enables film to relate differently to an audience than ballet or theatre which incorporate interruptions into acts, scenes, and interludes.

Yet a film's reality is not self-evidently given since truth cannot be immediately captured by the camera. So, like books, films reach their observers or readers in a highly edited form derived from raw materials which are represented to the audience in a partial, selective way. It is more difficult on film than with print to avoid the relatively superficial record that captures only the external appearance of subjects while offering few insights into processes, relationships, causes and motives which are the historian's concerns. The historian engaged in filmmaking has an obligation to uphold the integrity and principles of his profession, a responsibility that requires attentiveness to most aspects of filmmaking to assure that the final product faithfully records his outlook and intentions. These obligations cannot be met if the historian is relegated to the position of mere "adviser". Cinema technology provides the medium but the historian, as a filmmaker, must decide what he wants to show and then make it happen, bearing in mind that a film is more than a photographed story and that the "story" forms only one element in the filmmaking process.

Those who produce documentaries or compilation films select material from old newsreels, written documentation, graphics and artwork, portraits, snapshot still, maps, and cinematic interviews with knowledgeable participants. With film, unlike print, an added dimension is learning how to meld images with sound (including music) to make the film more coherent and understandable, since pictures and cinematic materials alone are often fragmentary and limited in expression. There is a tremendous difference between what images and sound can do. In a compilation or documentary film where information, images and explanation are more important than suspense and drama, the music sometimes needs to be specially composed and scored. Finally, the connections between sequences must be explained in the narrative script, a critical dimension discussed below.

Film is a lively, exciting medium for historical expression, but it can be expensive, fragmentary, and limited. When film becomes an instrument for historical communication, it is the historian who must identify and evaluate the components of the visual message which eventually will be selected for combination in a documentary film. The historian-as-filmmaker functions like any writer who has some notion about the nature of the audience for which s/he writes. Manuscripts, submitted to refereed journals or university presses, for instance, adhere to standards of style, exposition, evidence, and a comparative framework, all of which combine presumably to advance knowledge. If academic prose appears pretentious, unclear, or chaotic, it usually suggests that the author hasn't figured out precisely what s/he wants to say. "Good, scholarly writing," advises publisher Donald Holden, "is a service you perform for a stranger. To write well, you must put yourself in that stranger's shoes and imagine that you are the reader. Whether that reader is a scholar or a layman, your primary responsibility is to him."(15)

Likewise in filmmaking, in order for a historian to make clear precisely which historical themes or topics are to be explained on film, he must have the authority (either as producer or co-producer) to assure their visual implementation. Unlike in a book, one cannot simply turn back the film for a moment to look again at earlier sequences. The composition of the film from the historian's viewpoint will determine which documents or elements the director will utilise to craft the product. Those involved in the creation of a film develop an "audience image" of the presumed attitudes and preferences of the people expected to watch the finished product. Professionally sensitive to the difficulties of translating one culture to another, Parching Winds is an effort to inform public attitudes about the Islamic religion, the political nature of colonial rule, and the role of the humanities in a contemporary African country.

More than that, however, newsworthy events in the Horn of Africa in recent years have received considerable TV and press coverage. This coverage has concentrated (not surprisingly!) on catastrophes (drought and starvation), human misery and suffering (huge concentrations of refugees), warfare between Somalia and Ethiopia, and superpower maneuverings throughout the region. While acknowledging the critical importance of these issues, Parching Winds focuses primarily on two other themes which concern the lives of the Somali-speaking people of the Horn:

Firstly, the way that the humanities (poetry, drama, oral traditions) inform the Somalis' sense of collective memory, a storehouse of experiences enabling them to understand how their society came to be the way it is, an awareness that forms one of their strongest bonds as a people. The film shows how spoken words transmitted by oral, written, and electronic means play a didactic role among Somalis of today as in the past.

Secondly, the film also shows that, contrary to American and European fascination with photogenic African animals from the Pleistocene Age (such as lions, giraffes, rhinos, and zebras), the daily lives of Africans, together with the humanities that serve as its referent points, depend far more critically on the care and maintenance of domesticated animals such as goats, sheep, and camels. This point is expressed forcefully through aerial and ground level footage, receives appropriate scripting, and is reiterated through evocative examples of Somali verse referring to camels and their contributions to the people's survival.

Film is indispensable in reaching a certain type of public, especially mass audiences for whom the "television documentary may be their only contact with history presented as such (and) for many of them it will not be an interpretation but a final statement of the truth about its subject, driven home with all the force of visual demonstration."(16) But film made for TV does not permit the historian to insert footnotes which indicate the existence of other versions or interpretations. As the New Yorker recently editorialised, "You cannot look back up the page of a TV broadcast to check what you have just seen, or down the page to see how it might relate to what follows. The pictures flicker on the screen and then are gone forever." Given the tendency for many Americans and Australians to turn increasingly to TV for news, commentary, and even history means that reality gets selected, compressed, and reorganised into stories which seldom do justice to what cannot be seen. TV may make history more accessible and available but might it also make it more perishable and less durable, reflecting the very nature of the electronic media? History on TV does not give us time to reflect, ponder, stare out the window, or make a cup of coffee. "The new communications media may be giving rise to a new ignorance," warns the New Yorker. "Each generation brings a clean slate into the world. But the world itself is not a clean slate, and what happened before needs to be learned and remembered."(17) Neil Postman points out another weakness of history on TV: "Under the influence of the printing press, discourse was different - coherent, serious, and rational. Under television it has become shriveled and absurd." Postman argues that the problem is "not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining." Explanations on TV are thus part of a "peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view without much coherence or sense. Americans know a lot of things," says Postman, "but about almost nothing. Someone is considered well-informed who simply knows that a plane was hijacked or there was an earthquake in Mexico."(18)

A documentary film's commentary must be succinctly expressed and open to one explanation only. History is made understandable to a mass audience not by using densely worded arguments and detailed analysis, but by using the style of an essay where points are made carefully and the flow of the text is not burdened with scholarly jargon. Some suggest that time allotted for reading the script should not exceed twenty-five percent of the running time of the film. Thus, for a thirty minute documentary the historian as script writer must compose a narration that takes approximately eight minutes to read! The narration for a documentary must be economical and lucid and it must sound that way too. It must strike a fine balance between simplicity and precision so when heard by the viewer it conveys only one possible meaning. There is a great difference between writing words to be spoken and writing words to be read.

Another difference between historical writing and filmmaking is that the "author" in the latter activity almost always consists of teams of persons, the historian and the director of photography, and later the historian and the film editor. The identification and utilisation of documents precede their composition into a film. Identification and composition are different fields which require their own experts. On this critical point, director and historian must agree on a division of responsibility to avoid or minimise quarrels. Writing history is often solitary, as the same person does research, organises and interprets the material, and writes the text, while filmmaking is a co-operative, if not always harmonious enterprise where mutual respect and agreement not to interfere with each other's responsibilities form the basis of a good film.(19)

These commitments to a give-and-take style and to a search for compromise are prerequisites which seem easier to prescribe than to practice. Both historian and filmmaker must be flexible enough to allow the other to use his capacity to make certain the film accords with the findings of historical research and can responsibly provide entertainment to the general public. With many films being produced by artists whose sensibilities derive from disciplines other than the cinema, it's not surprising that professional filmmakers themselves rarely seem to agree on what filmmaking is all about in the first place.(20)

To explain African history with efficiency and flair, the filmmaker engages his audience's senses through a wide range of elements - images, montages, acoustics, music, noise, narration, symbols - to produce cinematic qualities that appeal to people's visual, audio, and emotional perceptions. The elements become celluloid images, representations re-arranged to establish in some sense a new reality. Therein lies the power of film, TV, and electronic images to educate an audience. If historians seek to disseminate scholarship through cinema, they must recognise the strengths and limitations of a medium that is a carefully contrived art form, one of "thinking in images", that is not necessarily chronological or sequential. African historians should not underestimate that power, ignore its limitations, or allow themselves any longer to under-utilise its capacity. I hope that by seeing just how ideas, objects, and images about Somali history were juxtaposed in a visually patterned way to produce The Parching Winds of Somalia, historians might better appreciate the potential for using documentary films for TV as a method to convey African themes.


1. This will acknowledge my appreciation to the Australian-American Educational Foundation (Canberra) and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (Washington, DC) for providing the necessary travel support to permit my participation in the conference in which this paper was delivered. My special thanks to Brian Shoesmith (Western Australian College of Advanced Education) for his support, encouragement, and advice, without which my attendance would have been impossible.

2.Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985) , p. 11. To substantiate Schechner's point, one need only compare the audience energy and enthusiasm generated at a live concert, say, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with that generated by the videotape produced for TV. Furthermore, with films there is "no moment of performance in which actor and audience meet directly; they meet only through the medium of the camera. The idea of communication through `media' is not itself new, the book is such a relationship." Peter Lyman, "The Book and the Computer in an Age of `Computer Literacy'" American Council of Learned Societies Newsletter, XXV, 1-2 (Winter-Spring, 1984), p. 22.

3. Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame: What We See in Films (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 15,18.

4. Caroline Seeholm, "Novels on Television: Viewer Beware", Wall Street Journal, 6 February 1985.

5. Nan Robertson, "Malamud Talks of Writing", New York Times, 23 February, 1985.

6. John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (New York: Longman, 1984), p. 184.

7. For information on sound in films, see: Carol Hamand, "Sound and Image", Wide Angle, vol. 6, no. 3 (1984), pp. 24-33; Tom Levin, "The Acoustic Dimension", Screen, vol. 25, (May/June 1984), pp. 55-68; and Peter Kivy, Sound and Semblance: Reflections on Musical Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

8. Curtis G. Smith Ancestral Voices: Language and the Evolution of Consciousness (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 135.

9. Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 18.

10. Required readings for a historian considering collaboration on a documentary film are: John Grenville, "The Historian as Filmmaker", in Paul Smith (ed.), The Historian and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 132-141: and Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (New York: Dell, 1982).

11. Smith op. cit., p. 10.

12. See also, William Hughes "Proposal for a Course on Films and History", University Vision, no. 8 (1972), pp. 9-18.

13. Tosh, p. 178, emphasis added.

14. Braudy, pp. 34-35. There is always a danger that the imaginary coherence or absence of conflict may either suggest that "life is a continuous process with no ruptures, no blanks, no blackouts," or encourage an ideological acceptance of existing relations of production. These issues are explored by Trinh T. Minh-Ha, "Mechanical Eye, Electronic Ear, and the Lure of Authenticity", Wide Angle, Vol. 6, no. 2 (1984), pp. 58-63; and Bill Nichols, Image and Ideology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981).

15. Donald Holden, "Why Profs Can't Write", New York Times (4 February, 1979).

16. Smith, p. 11.

17. The New Yorker (April 15, 1985).

18. The New York Times (October 9, 1985).

19. Smith, p. 126.

20. Joseph McBride (ed.) Filmmakers on Filmmaking (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1983), where Federico Fellini claims that "making a movie is a mathematical operation, like sending a missile to the moon," while Jean Renoir counters that "to talk about method in our profession is childish, because there is no method."

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