L.A.-based producer/writer/director Peter Hankoff has worked with footage old and new for myriad projects. But how close to the truth is what ends up on camera, and how far away from that truth can any footage get over time? Here, Hankoff explains in his own words.
I’ve been making non-fiction television for several years. A lot of it deals with World War II, but all of it touches on the conflicts of the human condition. And balancing history and entertainment can be a challenge. ‘Repurposing’ a lot of archival footage, to make my point, has made me appreciate the dangers of separating reality from reality television.
Just because something ends up on camera, how real is it? Does raw footage make something ‘more’ real? Does it create more truth… or more possibility for distorting the truth?
I’ve spent a lot of time both retelling history and looking at the way movies have depicted history as it was happening. When I screen old footage, I’m also cherry-picking from history to show what was once taken for granted and is now part of the past: streetcars, ocean liners, horses on city streets, steam shovels, riveters, etc.
History has given me some perspective, but also a somewhat grim view of the deeds of mankind. Granted, bad news sells a lot better than good news even if it’s old, but the projects I’ve worked on have given me a reputation amongst my friends as an expert on evil.
It’s easy to see the propaganda aspects of old newsreels – especially wartime newsreels – as I’ve done my homework and can understand the historical context from which they are drawn. Watching the ‘news’ in a Nazi ‘Wochenshau’ newsreel is pretty much a no-brainer, but I wonder how what we’ve been making now, whether it’s ‘reality TV’ or more ‘conventional’ documentaries, will one day be held up as the raw data of our time.
Perhaps because of my historical appreciation, I can see that there is a kind of innocence I and others have as Americans – it’s an unspoken assumption that there is plenty and a kind of abundance that underlies the culture and structure of what I’m creating. If the future becomes really grim, maybe my footage will be repurposed because this is an era of green trees or clear air or mountains with snow.
Indeed, as the Internet blossoms, I wonder where all our shots will end up. At some point the copyrights will cease and there could be a glut of content – perhaps a 21st-century nostalgia craze based on what we’re all making now.
When I think of those World War II battlefield crews cranking out the stories of the day, I often wonder, ‘Did they think their footage would end up in hundreds of uses after the fact?’ And how much of their stuff has been reedited to create unintended meanings?
Perhaps I’m inadvertently creating some future view of history by shooting footage today that may be treated in that same light. I can only hope the interview or b-roll I film today isn’t twisted around and made to create the thing I try to expose in a lot of my work: the subjugation of human beings and the oppression of human rights.
A century from now, will historians and filmmakers, or whatever term technology creates for us, sift through all of today’s reality shows and non-fiction TV to explain turn-of-this-century Western life? Will the voyeuristic minutiae of today become the sociologist’s raw data of tomorrow? Will our escapades seem trivial or revealing as today’s Survivors and Idols and Girls Next Door take us through their unscripted dramas an hour at a time?
I shudder to imagine how our lives will be reconstructed and presented. What would Neanderthals think of how we view them? After all, cave paintings were the original reality shows.
Only time will tell.
Peter Hankoff is an award-winning director, producer and writer who has served on the production of various projects with Creative Differences, including Gun Camera (Military Channel), Battle for Iwo Jima (National Geographic), Unsolved History (The Discovery Channel) and most recently, Nazi Masters of Death: The Hidden Holocaust. For more information, go to peterhankoff.com.