If seeing is believing…. How much do we need to see?

This blog entry is going to be slightly different from previous ones.

Last week we watched John Huston’s THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, one of the most important US war documentaries made during the Second World War. Initially the film shocked the military establishment by showing a gritty and realistic view of war that had not been seen on the screen. It is my opinion that Huston wanted to show the futility of war (“more rivers, more mountains, more San Pietros, greater or lesser”) and the cost (the abundance of footage containing the dead and wounded). This film was difficult for audiences to watch because there was plenty of realism in the footage.

But this film was not difficult for many of you to watch. Someone mentioned that this generation had become desensitised to the images. We even mentioned that some of the battle scenes in SAN PIETRO looked like something from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or other war movies. Hollywood filmmakers look to documentaries like this, to their style of capturing reality, and incorporate it into their films to make the moving going experience more realistic. Has the goal to become more realistic made reality on screen more difficult to achieve?

This evening we watched NIGHT AND FOG, which was one of the first documentaries dealing with the Holocaust. One of the many unique features of this film is it’s personal feel. The major focus of the film is not what the Nazis did, or even who they did it to. Rather the focus is on this could happen again, and it could happen to you.

We know that there is truth. Things happen. They happen is a particular way. There are reasons behind it all – Still truth is a hard thing to nail down. Documentary filmmakers have been wrestling with how to do it for a while. What needs to be shown to understand the massive impact of an event like the holocaust? When do we cross the line of our desensitivity? And if we do, are we breaking new ground, or creating a new line?

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Hollywood goes to War (or Documentary goes to Hollywood)

After Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent declaration of war on the Axis Powers a few days later, the US government moved forward in preparing its citizens for war.

Citizens across the country quit their jobs and enlisted in the services. One of the most popular film directors of the time was one of these volunteers, Frank Capra. We might know the name of Frank Capra, or be familiar with his more famous films such as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but his influence on documentary might not be as well known.

At 44, Frank Capra was assigned to work under top personal in the US Army to make documentary movies. These movies were designed to be shown to enlisted servicemen and women to inform them of exactly why America was going to war. The series, appropriately named WHY WE FIGHT, contained 7, approximately 1 hour long films. He worked with a few other filmmakers (Joris Ivens being one), but directed the majority of the series by himself.

The films are very dramatic – and look very different from documentary films that were being made in the US at the time. Capra freely used images from German, Japanese, and Italian propaganda films and presented them in a new context, as well as footage collected by the US military and newsreels. Many of the animations in the series were created by Walt Disney and animators who worked for him. Together with a highly composed musical score, Capra presented the case for why America was at war. His work was not seen as propaganda, like that of the enemy, rather vastly important informational films. The final series was screened not only to servicemen but to the US public, in Great Britain, and other nations around the world. Capra was granted a Distinguished Service Medal for his work.

Frank Capra was not the only Hollywood filmmaker to make documentaries for the US government during the Second World War – John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), William Wyler (Ben Hurr), and George Stevens (Diary of Anne Frank) also offered up their talents. John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Annie) also made documentaries. Unlike Capra’s WHY WE FIGHT series, Huston’s crew were attached to an Army regimen. The War Department commissioned a film from Huston explaining elements of the Italian campaign. His response was THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1940). Huston and his crew were actually on the battle field with US soldiers, often dodging bullets themselves.

“How Huston was able to function as an artist in the situation is difficult to fathom. He reportedly moved continuously in the face of enemy small arms and mortar fire from one cameraman to the next, explaining to each exactly what he wanted from their footage… The series of military engagements that the film recorded had resulted in the loss of over 1,100 men to the 143rd Infantry – and Huston had focused unflinchingly on the wholesale slaughter, documenting it in the same straightforward style with which he had recording the building of an airfield…” Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “John Huston at War” 1980. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. 147+. Print.

When the military first saw the film they were shocked – many even called Huston’s film pacifistic. Eventually General Marshall saw the film and defended the film stating the realism of war presented in the film would be beneficial for training purposes.

Discussion Starter: In your opinion, why did the US government turn to Hollywood film directors instead of the already established Documentary filmmakers in the US to make war time films? What traits of Hollywood do you see in these documentaries? Do you think this helped or hurt the development of the mode?