Dramadoc, reenactment and memory
Tomorrow we’re extremely lucky to hear discussions of drama-documentary, reenactment and memory by Jerome de Groot, whose forthcoming book Consuming History considers the ways in which popular culture engages with history, including reenactment; Juliet Gardiner, who of course worked on Edwardian Country House and 1940s House; Derek Paget, whose work No other way to tell it: dramadoc/docudrama on television is a fundamental text in this field of scholarship; Heather Sutherland, who is currently working with Derek and recently completed a PhD entitled 'Where is the Public Service in Light Entertainment?’; and Aileen Blaney, who recently completed her PhD on historical docudramas made during the Peace Process in Northern Ireland; not to mention the links which can no doubt be made between the insights of media professionals and these themes.
But I’ll now, though, give a brief overview of recent scholarship in the field because for those people attending tomorrow much of this will probably be covered by the speakers, and raise some questions:
The 1970s saw the broadcasting of Living in the Past, which used archaeological reenactment as experiment; it is still remembered fondly by archaeologists today.
The late 1990s and 2000s saw a fresh wave of historical reenactment or ‘reality TV history’; it has since been criticised by Tristram Hunt as, alongside e.g. Who Do You Think You Are, 'warm bath TV’, but not all scholars agree. For example, those writing in the special issue of Rethinking History last year included Vanessa Agnew and Alexander Cook, historians involved in reality history series – for them this allowed participants, if not viewers, to gain deeper and more meaningful insights both into the physical elements of living in the past, but also into identity in the present – e.g. Cook’s various comments on how it allowed him to reflect on being a white Australian.
Another interesting area is the intersection of testimony and reenactment – whether one can testify on someone else’s behalf after re-enacting aspects of their life. Although in The Trench this was done very explicitly with links to family members being regularly drawn, other elements like the use of photographs are also increasingly used by programme makers and scholars in order to better understand memory in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Memory studies as a whole is developing as a field and has been seen by some as a deliberate move away from history’s claims to objectivity. Certainly, there are strong links to, for example, Holocaust testimony. The new journal Memory Studies, edited by Andrew Hoskins at Warwick University, is a significant development for scholars, many of whom are recognising the way in which, as German film historian Matthias Steinle puts it, since the 1990s there has been an increasing shift so that archive images are contextualized through memory, rather than the other way around: memory and eyewitness testimony has become central to understanding of images, he suggests. If this is the case, it ties in nicely with Agnew’s assertion that recent years have seen the development of affective history – a turn to the personal and emotional – which reenactment often utilizes, so perhaps for some historians, history and Memory Studies are not so far afield.
Along similar lines, Derek Paget’s work on drama-documentary, which we’ll hear more about tomorrow, has been revised with the input of German scholar Tobias Ebbrecht. Their revised set of criteria for dramadoc, as given at the recent Visible Evidence conference in Germany, give even more weight to the use of emotive and personal images and references in the genre. So clearly here several aspects are highlighted – the significance of the personal and emotional, the hope that even a past outside living memory will not be forgotten, and the need for scholars to ask how and why programmes makers are making these types of programmes now.
Bearing this in mind some of our key questions might be:
When is dramadoc the only way to tell it?
Does it liberate us as an audience and let us take different viewing/identity positions?
Does reenactment do something similar, or is it limited to those involved? and
What does this mean for our memory, as individuals or as groups, of historical periods and events?
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