Documentary Filmmaking: Re-Manufacturing Memory

By Berman, Wendi | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Documentary Filmmaking: Re-Manufacturing Memory


Berman, Wendi, Southern Quarterly


The greatest confluence of all is that which makes up human memory ... Here time, also, is subject to confluence. The memory is a living thing - it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives - the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

- Eudora Welty

When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.

- Robert Penn Warren

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

- Joan Didion

When watching documentaries, I often wonder about the motivation to include, exclude, question, or not question something; I often wish I could have a dialogue with the filmmakers. There are all kinds of approaches to documentary filmmaking but for our purposes here, I am referring to the scholarly route of historical filmmaking - specifically, the way in which we set out to document as dispassionately as possible our film Jefferson Davis, An American President (2008). Our duty as documentarians is to find the closest approximation to the truth as possible, despite time's hazy distortion. To best serve that purpose we cannot treat any one, single reality as the one, single reality. In creating historical documentary, as in teaching history or literature, there are ways to truth, or even multiple truths; there are degrees of closeness to objectivity. We spent many months in the research phase for our film, hoping we'd found a degree ofthat elusive impartiality. In Grafting Jefferson Davis 's life we were very much aware that we were also revealing facets of southern history, some of them not entirely well known, some of them fairly well trod.

We started this documentary with one overriding purpose: to right as many inaccuracies and to correct as many falsehoods and decades-old assumptions as possible. We discovered that there was one 30-minute film on Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) made in the 1950s that had since been lost.1 Had there been scores of documentaries already, or even one good one, we could have focused on singular events in his 8 1 years; but we were offered a rare opportunity to re-create an unprecedented life instead. It was a daunting task.

Since the first step in documentary filmmaking is getting a good sense of your subject, with no available film to study, we sifted through the many Davis works, reading and re-reading the finest scholars available.2 Not unusually, most of them relied heavily upon the scholarship of previous scholars. As we knew that this could and would be problematical for us, we chose to pay particular attention to those whose work built on research in primary sources, and once we had a good read on Jefferson Davis - that he was neither angel nor devil, neither holy saint nor all-out sinner - we set out to shoot all of the locations pertinent to his life. And off we rode in a rented van from dusty collection to pristine archive to Lost Cause altar. Our first step took us from our house in New Orleans to West Point, New York; then from the national Capitol to Richmond and Montgomery; and even to the exact little tuft of woods where Davis was captured in Irwinville, Georgia. Raw footage attained, we started the kernel of our craft: synthesizing that information. Writing the script, we sifted through 110 hours of film and hundreds and hundreds of archival images. This is a simplification of our process. All in, it took five years -just slightly longer than the Civil War itself.

We had the one-time opportunity of committing to documentary video a comprehensive life of an important, maligned, revered, and misunderstood character in American history. And, since we were beholden to no movie studio's time frame, we thought we ought to take the time that our subject - and the viewer - deserved.

Because Davis 's life spanned most of the nineteenth century and is inextricably linked to the Civil War, we knew that we were turning over tender leaves of personal, regional and national memory. …

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