Seventy years ago, hundreds of people from all walks of life participated in a huge social experiment in Great Britain – the Mass Observation Day Survey – documenting, with pen and paper, daily life on the streets (and in the kitchens, pubs and hospitals) on the day of the coronation of George VI. It was one of the earliest and most elaborate exercises in user-generated documentary content creation, and the hope was that the results ‘should be of interest to the politician, the historian, the advertising agent, the realistic novelist and indeed any person who is concerned to know what people really want to think.’
It’s hard today to imagine all those interests sharing common cause in the style and method of documentation of the world at large. But it isn’t difficult to accept that we are entering a period of mass historical documentation, driven by millions of individuals with cellphone cameras, vlogs and cheap HD cams, the result of which will be the fodder for future makers of history programs about our times. (Hmm… The Days Before Facebook…?) There’s already a huge public interest in family genealogy (even extending the search back thousands of years with various DNA ancestry projects), with software and stock image products such as Family Tree Maker 2008 and Our History in Images on the market, making sophisticated media management tools cheaply available.
Perhaps professionally generated ‘stock footage’ will look as quaintly archaic in a history documentary as ‘newsreels’ do now. According to Steve Gamester, production executive at History Television, ‘It may still be historical programming, but there sure aren’t a lot of historical pictures in history programs these days; generally speaking, black-and-white footage and stills are used sparingly and in most cases avoided completely.’
The hallmark of this work will be ‘the personal,’ and while not new, that strand of creative DNA has had a huge impact on historical documentary work in recent years. We trust and treasure great historians, but as viewers do we want them to get out of the way?
As someone looking for documentaries that work as a cinema-going experience, Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel is ‘drawn to works that break out of standard historical formats and mix in dramatic narrative techniques and personal storytelling.’ Farnel cites recent productions like Miss Universe 1929 (‘Personal stories against a larger historical canvas’) and Wings of Defeat (‘in which the filmmaker takes a personal approach – her uncle was a kamikaze, and the film provoked a significant response in Japan’) as exemplars.
But this isn’t about ‘oral history’ taking over from author-driven work. Says Chris Granlund, a producer/director at the BBC: ‘I also think personal, vivid storytelling of quite traditional narrative history will continue to grow in popularity. The British audiences for Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain seemed to be responding to the power of a grand narrative or national saga, told in a refreshingly witty and accessible way: anecdotes, incisive character sketches and gossip helped bring the historic sweep of the narrative to life.’
Ed Hersh, founder and chief creative officer of [media consultancy] StoryCentric, feels that ‘user-generated video seems like the perfect way to involve affinity groups – think of those WWII, Korean War and Vietnam veterans groups that regularly reunite, or support groups that share a common issue or medical condition – in creating not only enhanced content ‘around’ a documentary, but now to become the building blocks of programs themselves.’
Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21 in New York did this to great effect when they created New York War Stories as a user-generated companion to Ken Burns’ WWII documentary event, soliciting personal remembrances and producing a compelling documentary around them.
The future potential for creating even ‘instant history’ programming, where we can create a tapestry of stories of those who shared common experiences, seems limitless.
So, scrape the inside of your cheek for a DNA sample, grab your BlackBerry, a spare USB drive, and let’s make history.