Anyone who’s interested in documentary – whether on TV, cinema or online – must inevitably face questions about war. Ignoring documentaries that deal with war would mean discounting some of the most important moments of documentary history, as well as missing a continuing effort to understand, as well as represent, the appalling phenomenon of war itself. I would argue that the special connection of documentary with actual events – however ‘creatively’ treated – can never be matched by fiction – however ‘realistic’. Fictions may exploit and even celebrate war, documentary must come to grips with its reality.
That’s one reason why I was dubious about the title of Hurt Locker Hero (BBC4, 26.11.2018), especially as, when it was first shown in cinemas, the documentary had been called The Deminer. Was this a crude attempt by BBC4 to widen the audience for an 90 minute film in a 10pm slot? A reference to a popular feature film which arguably exploits violence seemed a vulgar way to introduce the personal story of Col Fakhir Berwari. Berwari was a Kurdish Colonel supporting the Iraqi army. He worked as a ‘de-miner’ – a bomb disposal expert – in the embattled town of Mosul for more than ten years between 2003 and 2014.
The film is largely narrated by Fakhir’s son, Abdullah, as he watches what was, for him, an extraordinary home movie. When he was a child, his father had bought a camera to film his growing family. ‘He filmed everything’ says Abdullah. And he had taken his obsession with him when he went into the war zone. The footage which his son found three years after his death was shot by Fakhir and his colleagues, and gets as close to the reality of those dreadful days as it is possible. A television programme has never been so close to the day-to-day experience of a long-drawn out, apparently senseless conflict.
As ISIS was eventually driven from Mosul, the soldiers found mines literally everywhere. They were hidden in ordinary houses, buried in agricultural fields and lined up beside roads. Many seem to be home-made devices, created out of saucepans, suitcases or stray pipes, and were often triggered by mobile phones. The mines are seen up close, and there are heart-stopping close ups of Fakhir’s hands as he snips at the cables with a simple pair of wire clippers. Clearly the de-mining crew were in constant danger – the screen is several times blanked out by the force of an explosion, and the film ends with the major blast which killed Col Berwari.
War always plays a major part in the overlapping genres of entertainment and information which animate our screens. But throughout 2018, the awareness of war and its aftermath has been even more prominent than usual, as the television output marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. Live broadcasting of memorial events has been interleaved with numerous reflective programmes, including numerous documentaries. And much hinges on the difference between those which set out to record the experience of wars – like The Deminer – and those which set out to remember them and to consider their place in history. Immediacy or distance, experience or reflection – the documentary genre needs to do both.
For example, I’ve been reflecting on the relationship between Peter Jackson’s extraordinary and much praised They shall not grow old and the much less high-profile – but arguably equally important – three-part series The Long Shadow: Us and Them in which Professor David Reynolds explores the aftermath of the war and ways in which it has been remembered – and also, he argues, mis-remembered. The Long Shadow was scheduled at 11.25 on BBC4 as opposed to the high profile They shall not grow old on BBC2 at 9.30pm (although I watched both on iPlayer). In the light of Reynolds’s arguments, I found myself asking whether, despite all its qualities, They shall not grow old might be a contribution to mis-remembering – or at least, by focussing on experience, it might limit the possibilities of reflection….
With its meticulous re-mastering and colourisation of First World War footage – drawing on the technology and expertise of Jackson’s special effects studios in New Zealand where Lord of the Rings was created – They shall not grow old certainly evokes a vivid sense of immediacy. Explaining his approach in the arts series What do artists do all day (BBC4 11.11.2018) the celebrated director is clear that his focus was on the experience of the soldiers in the trenches. He wanted to ‘bring their humanity back, to stop them being a black and white cliché’. Reviewing the extensive footage held in the Imperial War Museum archive, he had asked himself ‘How can we re-vitalise it and freshen it up’. He set out to capture ‘the sort of detail you can’t see in the original footage’.
Diane Lees, Director General of the IWM admitted that as an archive they had some reservations about Jackson’s plans at first. However, the work was meticulous, using uniforms and other material from Jackson’s own huge collection of First World War memorabilia as reference, and taking account subtleties like changing light and facial expressions. Jackson was right when he argued ‘It’s not a gimmick: the faces look like people you know’. Restoration ‘means that the faces of the men come alive’.
Using interviews with survivors recorded in the 50s and 60s on the soundtrack, the film’s focus is indeed on the everyday lives. Despite the wounds and the blood there’s focus on humanity, survival and the camaraderie of the soldiers in the trenches – not on the carnage and slaughter. In the Radio Times (10-16.11.2018) Michael Buerk noted Jackson’s surprise at the veterans’ lack of self pity in their comments on the sound track. But Jackson asserted ‘I didn’t want a modern spin on it. I wanted them to say it as they saw it’. Later knowledge and hindsight were to be avoided. ‘The majority of [the survivors] didn’t feel sorry they’d experienced it’.
But a century later, even with the immediacy brought by the colourisation and remastering of original footage, there is no way that They shall not grow old could capture the complex of emotions, knowledge and partial knowledge that the audiences who watched that original footage would have brought to it. Despite its authenticity They shall not grow old could not pack the punch that The Battle of the Somme carried when it was shown in the new picture houses across Britain in August 1916. The battle was still raging and the fate of many of those who appeared on the screen was unknown. The audience would have been scrutinising the scenes for a glimpse of their husbands, sons and neighbours. It would have felt almost as instantaneous as a YouTube video or a Facebook posting. The audience would have responded not unlike Abdullah Fakhir, as he watched the explosions which first wounded then killed his father.
Certainly They shall not grow old aimed to give a different perspective – not a narrative of the war, but a study of survival and just getting on with it. The original footage that Jackson draws on, including material used in The Battle of the Somme as well as other contemporary newsreels, certainly contained those elements. However, despite its attention to visual detail, the film creates a generalised impression of the war experience, unlike The Battle of the Somme which follows a specific sequence of events amongst the British troops, tracing the step by step build up to an actual battle. The fact that one scene of ‘going over the top’ was recreated in a trench away from the front line – because otherwise the cameramen would have been risking their lives – tends to be made much of by sceptical commentators – but it does not detract from the 80 minute record of this historical event filmed as it happened.
[As an aside…in What do artists do all day Peter Jackson commented that a restoration of First World War footage had never been attempted. However in 2006 The Imperial War Museum marked the 90th anniversary of the battle by carrying out a detailed restoration, recreating how the film would have been seen at the time, and adding a new score. (In 1916 the music would have been performed live, so would have been different for different screenings).]
So has the centenary brought a greater awareness of war in general and its aftermath? In The Long Shadow David Reynolds’s three-part argument is that commemorations and memorialising may serve to distract from the longer picture and the political place of wars. They can reinforce familiar narratives instead of opening the door to the new understandings which come from tracing their consequences. The First World War has been the source of numerous novels, plays and other memorials – but its political legacy tends to be overlooked. It is remembered as a pointless waste of young lives, of ‘lions led by donkeys’. However, Reynolds argues that, far from being senseless, the war was key to the history of 20th century Europe – giving rise to the rival ideologies of communism, fascism, and electoral democracy – creating the divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that led to the Second World War and then to the Cold War.
War is always there in the documentary cannon. Mandy Chang, the current commissioning editor of the prestigious BBC strand Storyville, which broadcast Hurt Locker Hero, states that they are looking for ‘great characters, strong storylines’ and that ‘straight history is not our domain’. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/articles/documentaries-bbc-four-storyville)
While They shall not grow old is engaging and visual, drawing the viewer in with its authenticity, The Long Shadow is more like an illustrated lecture, as David Reynolds develops his arguments. Is that really a ‘documentary’? It seems unlikely it would have been commissioned by Storyville.
So the question remains….immediacy or distance, experience or reflection…? Basically, it doesn’t matter as long as we have both….
Pat Holland is a part-time lecturer at Bournemouth University. Her most recent book is The New Television Handbook, Routledge 2017.