Representing Realities

introduction: representing historical realities



We have become increasingly immersed in a culture of images and synthetic experiences which serve to substitute the visual sign or streaming bits of information for a physical reality. Virtual Reality systems, telecommunications, telecommuting, and cyberspace relations are all symptoms of this phenomenon. In VR, experiences are reduced to perceptions fed from an artificial source and reality is primarily defined by the processing of visual information. Documentary film often operates on these same levels, functioning as a representational or ethnographic camera obscura which filters reality into a readily accessible two-dimensional medium.

The camera acts as a filter for history in much the same way it discovers a visual reality of the present. No matter how close Abraham Zapruder's footage of the Kennedy assassination seems to bring us to the reality of the historical event, we are still separated from its historical truth behind the safety of the camera lens. The historical event is immutably frozen in the past, unable to be located except through representation (Williams).* Most people's experience of the Kennedy assassination have come from television screen illuminating their living rooms rather than from sunlit streets of Dealey Plaza.



Eternal Frame, 1976 — 52 sec. clip


In Eternal Frame, the Ant Farm Collective recreated the assassination of President Kennedy as captured by the Zapruder footage. They then interviewed witnesses of the depiction to find out what they thought of it. Some were appalled, others were deeply moved, but all seemed to judge the reality of the physical representation in terms of Zapruder's visual evidence of the assassination, which they held to be reality itself. In the words of Walter Benjamin, the "aura" surrounding the unpossessible historical event decays as the reality of the visual representation replaces the physical reality of the historical event.

To dismiss the strong emotions invested in the event as an "unreal" experience based in film rather than in one's physical presence at the event does not explain how film has essentially transformed perceptions of this historical event. Although relatively few people were actually present, film served as a substitute reality for the American public which (years later) may have been as real an experience as witnessing the event itself. The Zapruder footage may function in a similar manner to memory - the event is recalled through fragmented and unclear visual and aural evidence. Film inscribes the visual information of the event in its viewers eyes, creating a memory of the event based on the filmic representation rather than the actual experience.

Recognizing that the historical referent is located in the past, the documentary's ability to present visual evidence of the historical event while maintaining and even propagating a barrier between the audience and the event brings it close to the realm of ethnography. Films such as Oliver Stone's JFK, Harun Farocki's Images of the World and the Inscription of War and John Blair's Anne Frank Remembered all operate as discourses on a historical referent between a filmmaker and audience who are both removed from the social and political contexts which surrounded the original event. Historical fact is treated as the Other and we are placed in a position to judge the Other from our frame of reference.

The Kennedy assassination and the Holocaust are perhaps two of the most socially charged events for Americans in the twentieth century. Each event possesses an aura because of our distance from the event. Despite attempts to document, represent, and understand these histories, these events occupy the place of the Other in relation to our current cultural framework.

Many filmmakers have gone beyond this to question the impacts that a historical event can have on our present existence. Although the physical referent of the Holocaust is isolated in its own time and place, the ramifications of its history persist outside of the Other in our own culture. Errol Morris, in The Thin Blue Line and his rough-cut Mr. Death / Fred Leuchter, raises questions of the impact of the past on the present and, more interestingly, how film works into this dialectic. If we recognize the importance that the visual image has in reconstructing a past reality and feeding our knowledge of the Other, then we must also see the power of film to subsequently influence our immediate present. The representational qualities of film begin to question the extent that historical past exists as part of our physical reality.