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« ABC Meme | Main | Next stop: Slough of Despond »

June 26, 2004


David Tiley

Good on you. As someone involved right this minute in script editing a documentary on the Eureka Stockade, a mythmaking but physically minor clash in Australian colonial history, I can tell you this theory makes me gnash my teeth.

Roll on the historical novel. I wish more historians would do it, and I even hope they write good dialogue and set scenes well and move the rhythm on trippingly.

This whole thing gets much more of an outing in film. To take a risible example - a recent Australian "documentary" about alien invasions interviews a number of troubled souls who saw flying saucers. Then it uses computer animation to bring these visions to life, and in a way which is much more dramatic and detailed than the "evidence" in the interviews.

The effect is to make real something that isnt - to provide visual evidence, a complete experience, for something that can't be regarded as fact. And, by gum, its hard to eject from your brain.

A dramatised documentary about the dismissal of Whitlam - a big deal political event here in the 1970's - has replaced my memories of the event.

Fiction in history is dangerous, partly because we are not logical creatures designed like filing cabinets, but feeling mammals who are bad at distinguishing the logical status of experiences.

It is very easy to deal with the problem of the two enemies in the room. The trick, as Brian Matthews does in his biography of Louisa Lawson, (google's down - gasp - so I can't find the reference) is simply to interpolate the historian as a subjective commentator.

The more classical of the breed object to that of course, but it does allow McGoogan to say " we know these two characters went into the room together, and they were great rivals. What must the impact have been? To me, it is impossible that they did not exchange blows - after all, they had done it before... " etc etc etc. Simple.

And I am sorry, historians are practicing science, or at least something which is evidentially driven. If I find a fact in a history book, I expect it to be supported by evidence, not some bad writer's imagination.

For the totally practical reason that I might want to make a film about these two arctic heroes, and to recreate the bloody scene. I truly don't want to find out it is made up, because I wouldn't make it up myself. (I would probably do a better job if I did, with all the resources of a production company, director and actors to support me.)

Note that fascinating problems arise here about the historicity of documentaries. We are quite happy in this Stockade film to put actors into costumes and run them around a room gesturing to each other and mutter, but we won't put the actual words on the sound track unless they were the actual words.

At the moment we are being forced to remove a big chunk in the middle which we are emotionally committed to because we know the main characters faced off in this scene and we have a transcript of what they said. Gold, just gold. Except - we can't afford the actors, the scene is very long, and everyone is pompous and Victorian so it is boring.

You will appreciate the layers in that problem. Just keep laughing and move on. As we say to salve our wounds: "This is not art, its just a television program."

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