The Pathé News company produced newsreels on events and places both important and strange for the greater part of the 20th century. That footage is now housed in the British Pathé archive, a collection of 85,000 historic films spanning the years 1896 to 1976. [A couple of weeks ago], British Pathé announced that it had uploaded its entire collection to YouTube, making for a widely available trove of historic footage and a fascinatingly nerdy way to spend Friday afternoon.
Today survivor testimony is almost exclusively video testimony. Even if this change seems like a minor one (in sync with that from radio to TV and Internet), what matters is the act of witnessing in the communicative context of the electronic media: The visibility bestowed by video ensures the formal “audiencing” of the survivors and consolidates a larger move by them into the public consciousness. Yet testimony at this point also makes us more aware of the interviewer. By 1980 the survivor interviews are no longer standard debriefings, as in the immediate postwar years. They now serve principally both present and past: the present, by assisting the witnesses to retrieve and deal with memories that still burden, consciously or unconsciously, family life; the past, in that guarantees are needed, as the eyewitness generation passes from the scene, that what they endured will not be forgotten. “The mission that has devolved to testimony,” according to Annette Wieviorka (a major French historian who coordinated Yale’s taping in France ), “is no longer to bear witness to inadequately known events but rather to keep them before our eyes. Testimony is to be a means of transmission to future generations.”
This does not mean, of course, that this mission/transmission is without problems. Much has been written about secondary trauma: that is, how some of the effects of trauma suffered by the parents in the Holocaust were involuntarily transferred to the children of their new, post-Holocaust families. (To try and ignore this psychoanalytic issue is a bit like ignoring climate change.) But to give a more common and poignant example of what Wieviorka means by keeping the events, now mainly (if still not quite adequately) known, before our eyes, let me instance an episode from one of the earliest of the Yale tapes in which a survivor describes an incident in Poland during a deportation. When the survivor’s grandmother, an old woman with a broken leg not quite healed, tries to climb into a cart but is too weak to do it by herself, asks in Polish for help, a German soldier nearby says, “Yes, I’ll help you,” takes a gun from his holster, and kills her.
Her grandson, describing this episode, breaks down. He cries, or rather tries not to, contorting his face in a painful, gnawing motion that forces out the words “I’ve seen it.” When he is calm again, one of the interviewers asks him, very hesitantly, whether he could tell what moved him most (or what made him cry at this point in the interview) and whether he had also cried at the time it happened.
The two conjoined questions, though they seem intrusive at first, are, important. The answer to the second question is that he did not cry then, because he was “petrified.” The answer to the first is also simple but strikes me as wonderfully strong, because it comes so close to the agony that preceded it. He cried now because of “the inhumanity: someone asks for help, and that help is expressed as a killing action.”
In 2014 the Science Museum in London will open its brand new gallery, Information Age. The gallery will bring communication technologies and their users to life, beginning 200 years ago with the arrival of the electric telegraph and coming right up to the present day. Mobile phones have radically changed the ways we communicate, especially in developing countries where we have seen a ‘leap-frogging’ of technologies such as the landline telephone. In order to tell the very important stories about the impacts of mobile telephony in developing countries we chose to present a case study to our visitors. After much deliberation we decided on an anthropological treatment of mobiles in Cameroon. Our research included a field trip to Cameroon to carry out interviews and acquire artefacts for display, working alongside an anthropologist, a filmmaker and an historian. We have also worked extensively with the Cameroonian community in London who are helping us tell their stories authentically and sensitively.
[Cross-posted from the WITNESS Hub Blog.]
In case you can’t tell, it’s my day to catch up on all things New York Times…
1. For our older selves.
2. For our descendants.
3. For pleasure.
4. For historians.
5. For posterity.
Of course, people the world over are taking and sharing footage, and much of it is precisely for those reasons. YouTube, for instance, currently receives 14 hours of footage per second (that’s right – per second)[Correction – nope, per minute…]. And our ancestors weren’t much different – Home Movie Day and I For India are just two great examples.
While here at WITNESS we’re working with video in a very different way – as a core tool in human rights work and advocacy – some of those reasons hold true for our work and the work of our partners, and it’s definitely a key part of the Hub. My colleagues in the WITNESS Media Archive blog regularly on these topics – most recently here.