Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fiction in Documentaries

I've been watching several documentaries presented on the Nova program on American public television.  One was called Decoding Neanderthals, which featured scientists reconstructing the DNA of the extinct hominid.  Another segment was on Utzie the "ice-man", the 5,000-year-old mummy discovered in the Alps during the 1990s (and who, it turns out, is the world's earliest known homicide victim).

Howdy cousin.
But as an Anatomist of Culture, I couldn't help but to focus on the form, as well as the content of the Nova programs.  They brought forward thoughts I had previously on what I call the theatrical or even fictional aspects of the documentary.

For example, each Nova episode contains edited footage that was obviously shot weeks, months or even years in the past.  However, the narration is in the present tense, as though they were some kind of live event.  Thus, in the Decoding the Neanderthals segment, the narrator says something like, "Now Dr. Smith will compare human DNA with the newly-constructed Neanderthal genetic code, to see if the two species have shared ancestry."  The researcher in question is then seen performing work on the laboratory, and then examining the results, before making his announcement.  However, the results were known long before the show was broadcast.  The show is engaging in fiction by presenting this as though it were not the case.  

There is also the narration itself.  The Nova iceman episode voice-over was provided by Jay O. Sanders, an actor with many supporting credits (and some starring roles in minor productions) to his name, but nevertheless no scientific expert on the matter in question.  The program on the fate of the Neanderthals, is also narrated by Sanders. Saunders does a very effective job at assuming authoritative voice that lay-people would expect from an actual expert in the field.  Which is to say, he brings to bear the acting talents that might be used to assume the role of a lawyer, doctor or indeed, a scientist, in any fictional television show or movie.  

As a rule, actors and actresses are employed to narrate science and other academic documentaries, simply because the producers know that they will have more impact on audiences, than what most actual scientists and academics can manage.  

Other fictionalizing aspects are common to the documentary - quite aside from how, throughout the history of the form, film-makers themselves have been known to employ deception in the telling of their stories. What is recognized as the first documentary, Nanook of the North, from 1922, is really a fictional story, in which the "Eskimos" therein played roles based on their selves.  

(He later shot it with his gun)
I would assume that the Nova and other contemporary documentaries are not being similarly deceptive, but they literally become drama in, for example, in their liberal use of re-enactments.  The programme on Neanderthals contained footage of actors made up to appear like Homo sapiens neanderthalis, variously running through grasslands, making fire, even pioneering a gelling process from an estimated two hundred thousand years ago.  These are interspersed with scenes of other actors, playing Homo sapiens who lived at the same time as the Neanderthals.  

To illustrate the belief once common among paleontologists that Neanderthals died out as a result of modern humans invading their nordic habitats, the two groups are shown involved in (tamely-depicted) confrontation and violence.  Comparing it with the DNA sequencing of modern human populations, it turns out that in fact the Neanderthals were substantially absorbed into the human family, and traces of their genes are especially evident in those of southern European descent (the regions in which Neanderthal humans were centred).  

This revelation is followed by scenes in which a single female Neanderthal approaches the encampment of a solitary modern human male.  The man rises suspiciously, weapon in hand.  But seeing the Neanderthal woman emerge from behind a tree, he relaxes and comes forth.  They examine each other's half-naked bodies amorously before the scene cuts away (starting at about 47:20 in linked clip), leaving the rest to the imagination.  A heartwarming prehistoric Romeo and Juliet, it would seem.  

This is, of course, a complete writer's embellishment.  The raw fact of the existence of Neanderthal DNA within the human genome, gives us no information as to just how it got there.  The remains of Neanderthal settlements have always been discovered separately from those of Homo sapiens, and this is what led paleontologists to believe that the two groups of humans did not interbreed.  The actual process by which this took place, could well have been much more non-consensual.  

There is thus a dual-fiction taking place in these re-enactments, both in how Neanderthals and sapiens are shown at war (according to the traditional understanding of their relationship), and how they apparently made love (as per the new genetic information).  The Nova show on Utzie the iceman, similarly has actors re-enacting the hypothesized cause of death, and in fact, re-enactments have long been a part of TV "news-magazine" reporting, as well. 

Ken Burns' documentaries do not contain re-enactments.  They are unusual just for this.  But this doesn't mean they have no element of dramaturgy.  The Civil War and other Burns programmes employ actors of respect and renown reading the words from letters, diaries or published sources, of the participants of the events being profiled.  To hear Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons or Sam Waterston in recitation thereby, is an essential part of the entertainment of a Burns documentary.  

The Real McCoy, indeed
Waterston, who in 1990 was years away from his famed role as D.A. McCoy on the Law and Order series, provided the voice of Abe Lincoln in the Civil War program.

Waterston's voice is quite distinct, though not unpleasant, and its cadence lends a certain nobility to Lincoln's impassioned declarations that the war had to be won, and that black slaves must be freed.  Lincoln's challenger in the 1864 general election, in which he won a second term in a landslide, was George McClellan.  The latter had been commander of the Union forces early in the war, when he clashed with the president over strategy, and didn't seem interested in fighting at all (at least according to the Civil War program). McClellan's voice is provided by Terry Courier, who may not be a professional actor, for this is his only credit at the Internet Movie Database.  It is haughty-sounding, in keeping with the "character" Courier is playing for the show.  Burns further ensures our antipathy by quoting McClellan describe Lincoln as a "monkey."  Perhaps this is an accurate rendition of how McClellan actually spoke.  But likely as not, Burns selected Courier for being able to articulate himself in a way that would be off-putting to most anyone who saw the program. 

There is the musical score of Burns' documentaries.  Famously, each episode of the Civil War is introduced by the Ashokan Farewell, a very melodic and haunting waltz performed by Jay Ungar, originally recorded in 1982.  As beautiful and appropriate as this instrumental seemed, it was composed several years before the Civil War programme was made, and has nothing to do with it at all.  Except, by later association, Appalachian Farewell is identified only with the American "war between the states."  

Generally, the musical soundtrack in a Burns documentary is understated and contemporary to the events in question.  In the Civil War, the score consists entirely (except during the intro) of simple piano music that would have been familiar to the combatants in that war: John Brown=s Body, I Wish I Was in Dixie, and so on.  But generally, the musical score of even "serious" PBS documentaries are quite a bit more dramatic, as is the case with both the Neanderthal and Utzie shows.  

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