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This paper shall attempt to explore the engagement of documentary films with oral history traditions, primarily in terms of their collective dealings with verbal records of interviews and testaments. It shall attempt to study the plausibility of using film footage from such documentaries – and other filmed records and testaments – as a viable source for developing oral history records. In doing so, the proposed essay shall pick up on the example of a Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) to illustrate its findings. Moreover, owing to the nature of the chosen film, this research shall also briefly address the question of recording and preserving oral histories which deal with events of trauma, which are often preserved and studied in a “collective memory” sense. In its simplest understanding, oral history is an interdisciplinary practice of historical research, wherein the researcher engages in interactions with subjects, and attempts to elicit historically relevant information, which is made available after a thorough analysis of their narrative’s signification, interpretation and meaning; i.e. a comprehensive understanding of what is said, how it is said, why it is said and what it means. In this sense, it can be argued that oral history concerns itself with both, the act of recording, as well as the record that is eventually produced. Renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli makes a distinction between ‘oral history’ and ‘the use of oral sources in history’ since the former may imply a research method exclusively dependent on oral sources, which is not typically the case. However, a lot of the times academicians use the term ‘oral history’ to refer to a historical account which has been developed using a variety of sources, but wherein oral sources play the most dominant role i.e. these accounts don’t necessitate the exclusive use of oral sources in laying claim to their classification as oral histories. In looking at the trajectory of the development of oral history traditions one sees that the earliest accounts of history were in fact written records of oral narrations and testaments, and it wasn’t until the propounding and propagation of the scientific method of research in the early 19th century that oral sources came to be marginalized.
In his book The Voice of the Past, oral historian Paul Thompson has elaborated on this prehistory of the modern oral history movement and supplements his claims in taking up examples such as ancient historians’ reliance on eyewitness accounts. Moreover, until the post-war era historians were predominantly interested in the political understanding of history and owing to their restrictive documentation of the struggle for power, the lives of ordinary people were blatantly ignored in the larger written narrative. However, in the aftermath of the Second World War, academic engagement with oral history reignited, in fact Thompson refers to the oral historians of the time as the ‘vanguards of a renaissance’. The importance of this form primarily lies in its facilitation of an increasingly holistic understanding of history, which in its social function accounts for the narratives of the ordinary man, particularly the marginalized groups of people whose voices have so far been absent from the larger historical narrative, and therefore “history becomes… more democratic”. According to Thompson, all history depends upon its social purpose, which may sometimes present itself as obscure- as is often seen in the case of oral history- but may also become extremely palpable, such as in the case of written history’s provision for justifications of socio-political events such as war, conquest, territorial seizure, revolution etc. mostly from the victor or socially higher class’s point of view. Furthermore, Thompson argues that “by introducing new evidence from the underside, shifting the focus and opening new areas of inquiry, by challenging some of the assumptions and accepted judgements of historians, by bringing recognition to substantial groups of people who had been ignored” oral history can rightfully be regarded as a vehicle for the potential transformation of the content, process and form of the historical discipline in its traditional understanding. The primary means used to access oral sources is through direct interactions in the form of interviews and narrated testimonies. Often, aural recordings are made on-site and used by the historian to draw inferences at a later point. However, it is imperative to note that not all interviews lend their findings to oral history traditions. It is only in eliciting and creating knowledge of the past that an interview can claim to engage with oral history, even in part. Herein, it becomes important to mention that unlike the limiting nature of the traditional written accounts, oral history- in addition to developing a historical narrative of the past- through its reliance on memory and remembrance of individuals to develop its narrative, expands its purview to incorporate their present as well. Interviews conducted for the purpose of developing oral histories also hold the possibility of leading to the discovery of photographs and written documents which might have evaded the historian’s knowledge so far.
Another crucial aspect of the oral history process so far has been that of transcription, wherein the historian attempts to faithfully transcribe the words spoken by the interviewee, thereby producing – or rather re-producing – written sources which have long been considered as more concrete forms of evidence, especially in the traditional understanding of the scientific method. In this light, Portelli states that written and oral sources don’t necessarily exist in isolation from each other, and though the latter are often recognized as merely the supports for traditional written sources, the two exemplify some mutual characteristics, as well as certain autonomous and specific functions. The very act of transcription of aural data for scientific purposes accentuates his claim for their interdependency, though some scholars have gone so far as to implicate transcription as a manipulative process in this regard. Drawing on the same, it should be noted that despite being advocates of oral history, most oral historians attempt to adequately address the methodological limitations and drawbacks of the same. Traditional scholars and historians are skeptical of the oral history method and speak of the loss of validity owing to the time gap between the subjects’ experiences and the telling/recording process carried out by the historian, and also the loss of empirical truth in solely relying on their memory. The early 1970s saw a wave of opposition by the traditionalists, wherein they asserted that memory was susceptible to physical deterioration, as well as nostalgia, and that bias seeped into the records since the individual accounts often came to be heavily influenced by the larger collective narrative. Others yet speak of the method’s susceptibility to sampling errors since a majority of the interviews are conducted within a sample group which has been consciously self-selected by the historian. Drawing on the aforementioned, the problems which are quoted recurrently are those of the method’s lack of credibility and seemingly over compensatory reliance on intersubjective inferences. Over the years, oral history advocates have attempted to address the limitations of their practice and have developed well-reasoned justifications, as well as conclusive responses and means of resolution.
Firstly, scholars have stated that owing to the nature of the testimonies as human documents rather than merely historical ones, their interactions between the past and present achieve a great significance, which should ideally surpass the concern with complete accuracy. Moreover, they speak of the written documentation as being equally selective and biased, particularly since the earliest historians were appointed by the figures of authority themselves, and only took into account their limited concerns and understandings. Hence, they argue against the invalidation and disregard of the verbal accounts in their entirety, especially when seen to be inaccurate only in part. In his essay, “What Makes Oral History Different”, Portelli argues that the very factors of oral history which the traditionalists consider to be inferior- and are skeptical of – can be looked at as its strengths, these include orality, narrative form, subjectivity, the ‘different credibility of memory’, and the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee.
In an attempt to establish the validity of oral history, scholars have taken on an interdisciplinary approach which draws upon psychology, anthropology, sociology, documentary history et. al. The collective learnings from these approaches are applied to gauge bias and fabulation of memory; to develop representative sampling techniques and check for errors; to determine the internal and external consistency of their data; and lastly to understand the interviewers’ influence on the respondents’ narratives. Furthermore, scholars such as Henry Greenspan have recognized the importance of sustained conversations over a period of time, since this allows the interviewee to repeatedly reconstruct their narrative, allowing for an internal check in terms of consistency, and thereby producing a clearer semblance of the truth. In fact, a single question can be phrased differently and asked within the same interview as well; these are referred to as internal validity checks. On the other hand, external checks include the outside confirmation of facts from several independent agencies, including oral as well as documented sources. Owing to their capacity as an audio-visual filmic medium, documentaries go beyond the mere capturing of testaments in their audio form and also account for the capturing of body language, expressions, movements etc. – each of which hold the potential to supplement the subjects’ testament and oral descriptions based on accession and active construction of memory and remembrance.
One of the major arguments given by the proponents of oral history is in terms of its ability to move beyond the segmentary traits of language, that is, in accounting for meanings which are connoted in the speakers’ tonal range, cadences and volume range, rhythm and speed of speech, pauses and silences etc. Each of these play a significant role, particularly until- and even during- the transcription process. In fact, scholars such as Lynn Abrams and Richard Bauman also address the performativity of oral history and make claims for the respondents’ and subjects’ narratives as “performances of words”, which are “… a social activity which cannot take place without an audience.” They claim that in their totality, oral history narrators prescribe to a way of speaking which is separated from ordinary speech – “a speech act performed for an audience, in a particular context.” Therefore, a thorough interpretation of the communication between the interviewer and the interviewee demands for the acknowledgement of the manner in which both the parties speak- their dialect, gestures, facial expressions, physical movements etc. – since each of these aspects are an indispensable part of the communication process wherein, equal weightage is granted to language and non-vocal articulation to derive meaning. In this understanding of the performative, it is fascinating to note how both, oral history as well as the documentary film form are social activities which aspire for shared knowledge and see the audience as indispensable; and in both of these, the awareness of the audience influences the subjects’ responses, as well as the manner in which they recall and narrate the memory of their experience from the past.
In response to the aforementioned, and in striving to expand the traditional means of collecting oral history testimonies, the documentary film form seems to come across as a plausible means of accessing subjects’ narratives. Herein, one must note that in discussing the documentary form as a potential source for gathering data and testimonies, this paper particularly refers to the drawing of inferences from the historical documentaries which predate its writing; and only partially addresses the overall usage of audio-visual methods to collect fresh testimonies in the contemporary digital era.
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