The History Makers conference wrapped January 29, in Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt, after three days of master classes, archival discussions, debates, a keynote speech, lunches, meet and greets and an awards ceremony. The event was marked by an impromptu tribute to the late Howard Zinn.
There was a poignant and driven quality to the master class on The People Speak held last Friday. Just two days before on January 27, Howard Zinn, the radical America historian whose remarkable A People’s History of the United States has inspired millions including Bruce Springsteen and Matt Damon, died in California. Anthony Arnove, co-executive producer of the TV doc and co-author of Zinn’s follow-up book, on the ‘voices’ of American cultural and political leaders, told how a theatrical version of history was filmed effectively, with star collaborating speakers including Viggo Mortensen, Marisa Tomei, David Strathairn and, of course, Affleck and Damon.
Emotional chords were also struck on Thursday evening, just before the Awards show, when a group of friends and colleagues spontaneously sang ‘happy birthday’ to Professor Guido Knopp, the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement prize. On Friday, the now 62-year-old head of German broadcaster ZDF’s history department, showed a clip reel to an effusive crowd that clearly demonstrated his expertise in dramatizing the German story in the 20th century from Hitler to the Berlin Wall to the World Cup.
If Knopp’s work – rigorous, sober, often in black and white – represents the best of classic history documentaries, Apocalypse demonstrates the genre’s New Wave. The winner of this year’s Archival award in History productions, the French coproduction with the Smithsonian Networks, took that hoary old subject, the Second World War, and made it appealing to audiences young and old. The tricks, as revealed in an effective behind-the-scenes doc, were in making the show HD compatible, colorizing old material, fixing the audio, adding a fresh score by someone young and hip and finding previously unseen material, which shed new light on a well trodden past. The results among younger audiences were remarkable, pointed out Clemence Coppey, France 2′s commissioning editor and Ann Julienne, head of International Development on France Television. Fully 20% of the under-30s tuned in to watch a show that wouldn’t normally attract them.
History Makers started off with a bang thanks to the canny selection by executive producer Bill Nemtin & company in deciding to have best-selling historian Daniel Goldhagen as a keynote speaker. The esteemed author of Hitler’s Willing Executioner brought humor and self-deprecation to his story of how a writer has to learn humility in order to collaborate with a director. Now, Goldhagen and director Mike de Wit are working on another production together – having worked out who handles the drama and pictures and who writes the words.
With innovative technologies leading the way, history shows – and History Makers – will be part of the future, not just the past.