Through a lens darkly
On its release three years ago, Oliver Stone's film JFK, about the assassination of President Ken-nedy, caused controversy for its blending of fact and fiction. Such was his skill in reproducing the panicky, blurred nature of the event, said Stone's critics, that his version could too easily be mistaken for the real thing. History, they insisted, had no room for such distortions.
Reel Truth?, a new four-part unit in The English Programme series, puts the opposite case entirely, using evidence from news and documentary film-making from the invention of cinema in 1895 to the advent of "talkies" in the 1930s. From its earliest beginnings, the series argues, film was used to frame events to suit economic and political necessities. What is more, the series implies, they still do.
While the first programme, "Seeing in the Dark", serves as a kind of establishing shot focusing largely on the character of early film audiences as well as the places (fairs and showgrounds) where films were screened the three remaining programmes concentrate on more specific issues.
As its name suggests, "Rumours of War" (November 13) examines newsreel coverage of military matters, while "Pictures of Power" (November 20) observes manipulation of the medium by prominent public figures. Finally, "Don't Look at the Camera" (November 27) charts the beginnings of the British documentary movement, itself partially born of a reaction to the patronising ways in which the working classes were treated by establishment film-makers.
With intelligent commentary delivered by Juliet Stevenson, all four programmes illustrate the contrived nature of early newsreel. In some cases, this might be regarded as fairly harmless opportunism. The series shows a clumsy but apparently convincing reconstruction of a United States naval victory in the Spanish-American war of 1898, for example, or a hammy impersonation in 1899 of Alfred Dreyfus, the French army officer wrongly condemned as a traitor.
Other items, "Rumours of War" relates, were plainly propagandist. Two years into the First World War, officialdom finally allowed cameras in the trenches. The result was The Battle of the Somme, a lengthy documentary seen by half the population of Britain. Though grimly, if selectively, realistic in places there are far more German than British corpses, for example other scenes were carefully rigged. In particular, one sequence showing a battalion going "over the top" has repeatedly been included in documentaries ever since. Here, an excellent stop-go analysis conclusively shows it to be a fake.
In time, audiences grew more sceptical, even to the extent of booing post-war films that showed battle to be less gory than glorious. Yet the fakery continued, some of it absurdly obvious. Students will themselves fall about when they see one particular combatant expiring with comic extravagance in a Russian war documentary from 1924.
It is no surprise to learn that many politicians were similarly keen to arrange photo-opportunities, if rather less strenuous ones. President Kennedy was not, as many suppose, the first politician to turn only his best side to the lens. As "Pictures of Power" shows, David Lloyd George was equally adept at seducing the camera either solo or surrounded by what seemed an adoring household.
Some celebrities were more direct in their search for wealth and fame. Sufficiently astute to sell the film rights of crucial battles to an American company, the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa assiduously courted the medium to cultivate his reputation at home and abroad.
And, of course, the very powerful were able to ensure that, when required, the cameras looked the other way. In the 1930s, British newsreels were dutifully discreet about the relationship between the future Edward VIII and Mrs Wallis Simpson, choosing instead to sedate audiences with the rituals of state.
Not everybody had the opportunity to represent themselves so positively. As "Don't Look at the Camera" reveals, the working classes had cameras pointed at them more often through compulsion than choice. Nor were they able to influence the words that accompanied the pictures. As a result, a large part of the nation was regularly ignored, lampooned or misreported.
Arguably the strongest of all, this final programme produces graphic evidence of this sustained deception. "Industrials", early promotional films, were made with the proprietor sometimes literally calling the shots: an especially clever sequence shows one factory owner inspecting workers within the frame, then apparently moving outside it to bawl instructions at them to ignore the camera. Other productions were still more deceitful. "A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner", a sentimental, sanitised fiction from 1910, entirely failed to mention the 2,000-odd men killed that year in pit accidents. Industrial disputes, most notably the General Strike of 1926, invited only derision from commentators.
If Reel Truth? grinds its axe from the left, it does so openly and with abundant evidence, taking care to make its main points altogether incontrovertible. Nor does it neglect likely parallels in today's media output, although it points to them in such a way a brief glimpse of President Reagan working the crowds as to avoid overtly orchestrating any conclusions.
Instead, the programmes permit students to work out for themselves the main point: while the camera always tells a truth of sorts, the same cannot be said of whoever holds it.