What do we mean by ‘history’? The term itself is much contested. History (with a capital ‘H’) is often reserved for ‘official histories’ of events, these are usually imbued with hegemonic priorities and neglect many voices that could contribute to narratives of the past. Histories are also fundamentally narratives –they are always constructed retrospectively and structured by authors (be they historians or film collaboratives). Histories therefore are always stories.
Regarding her short animated Holocaust film Silence (1988) Orly Yadin claims animation is one of the most authentic mediums because it is truthful about its inability to re-present a terrible past in an objective, ‘realist’ manner (Yadin, 2005:169). When live-action films attempt to confront history they tend to do so by displaying a realist-historical aesthetic –attempting to ‘look’ like the past. However, as is the representational nature of ‘realism’, such films ultimately fail to show the past exactly as it was experienced. This is not only true for historical films however, but written historical accounts, as highlighted above, are also always only re-presentations of the past.
Perhaps then histories are better understood as ‘memories’ –subjective rememberings of the past. A detailed history of any specific past would therefore recognise the many different memories which have emerged from it. The New Historicism of the 1980s, influenced by the work of Hayden White, recognises this and acknowledges the importance of ‘history from below’ –history from beyond the official archons and annuals, from home movies, family photographs, a democratic, history of the people.
To what extent then can animation be useful to the telling (or more aptly ‘showing’) of history or memories?
While little known narratives can be resurfaced through the restoration of home movies or family photographs, animation has the potential to offer particularly interesting engagements with the past. A review of ANIMADOC- DOX Leipzig festival in 2008 notes:
Several filmmakers chose animation to be able to address shocking or painful themes –rape, war, refugee flight, death, domestic violence and the like- in order to preserve their or their protagonists’ dignity or identities, or to recreate and channel things remembered when there was nothing else to show.
(Jo-Anne Velin, 2009:15)
Animation can offer images of the past where real footage is missing. Jaimie Baron (2014) highlights that many peoples and events are missing from official archives. Images of some places, cultures and things may be lost forever. However, animated images have the potential to fill the gaps in these archives. It is significant that such footage can never imitate the past in a ‘realist’ manner, for the textural difference of the animated medium from the lived human world emphasises the absence of these events from official history.
Animation can dig under the surfaces of images and words, and through the particularities of its textures bring spectators closer to the affective impact of the past on individuals. There are not only things which are absent from the archives, but events which have been considered “unrepresentable”. The Holocaust is often claimed to be one such event. In Silence, an animated ‘cut-out’ character floats across faded archival images, in all my research into Holocaust film I have the never seen the notion of a survivor’s detachment from their pre-war life, home and culture so powerfully illustrated, and in such a quick sequence. It is the film’s contrast of animated and archival textures which gives this scene such meaning.
Victoria Grace Walden is a PhD researcher and graduate
teaching fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Her main research
interests are Holocaust film and the materiality of memory, and she
explores a wide range of moving-image formats (attempting to bring into
question the very meaning of the word ‘film’ in the 21st Century) from
appropriation of archive footage, animation and virtual and physical
image-based exhibitions. She leads the international research forum
‘Holocaust, Contemporary Genocide, Popular Culture and Digital
Baron, Jaimie (2014) The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History, London: Routledge.
Velin, Jo-Anne (2009) ‘Animadoc: A Growing Cross-Genre’ in Dox: documentary film quarterly. No 81, 1-3-2009. Pp14-15.
Yadin, Orly (2005) Silence, UK: Halo Productions Ltd.
– (2005) ‘But is it documentary?’, in Haggith, Toby and Newman, Joanna (eds) Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film and Television since 1933, London and New York: Wallflower, pp168-172.