Apologies for delay in responding, I posted this just before heading out of the country for a month and wasn't online much whilst away.
I think the first thing to be said is that there is often a great divergence between the quality of research and the quality of the final film. M Leary, I too share your scepticism about documentaries, I think the majority of academics do which is ironic as we love gracing them. I have to admit that my own experience demonstrated the truism that finance and time pressures result in a lack of methodical rigour. I expect that this is less so on a documentary series, particularly if it is sold as a flagship show that is demonstrative of the channel's reputation (for example, the BBC2 series on Auschwitz from 2005 which was hailed by historians and tv critics alike, and which no doubt ticked the boxes for the beeb's 'public service' licence fee requirements). Having said that, there are occasionally films that really do make you sit up and take note, and feel as though you have learnt something in an informed manner.
With respect fiction film, it is harder to judge as good research is often kept to the background. The fiction films that, for me, always stood out as examples of good research are The Age of Innocence
and The Remains of the Day
. This is in part because they are period dramas which do seem to stand out. (I expect this is also why they regularly win oscars for best costumes.) However, these two films are also particularly atuned to how the nuances of social behaviour affect individuals, which may be why they stand out: the research is absorbed into the story. I remember reading an article about The Age of Innocence
in which the journalist visited the set during filming and witnessed a historian that was an expert on 19th century New York society. The journalist reported that they corrected things such as how people held their cutlery, patterns on plates, etc. Tiny tiny things but all of this affects performance and feeds into understanding the experience of living such restricted, controlled lives.
As for documentaries, whether they would stand up to a second viewing, I dunno, but The Thin Blue Line
and Capturing The Freidmans
blew me away when I saw them. I am sure there are many many more that do not see a wide public release that deserve recognition.
As for the experience of researching this documentary, it was certainly interesting. We had two months to do the research and complete the interviews. I had researched the photographs for my Masters by Research thesis, and contacted the producer at the time. She remembered me and, when the project was green-lit, she got me on board. I had worked with the 1500 odd pictures at the library of congress and was the only person that had said to her 'yes, you can find the people in the pictures'. Everyone else said it was an impossible task. Thankfully, Fusco took pictures most of the way along the track so the photos were like one giant jigsaw, covering approx 250 miles. From there, it was a matter of identifying places. Some were obvious (stations), others took a little more work (business signs, street signs), and some would have been impossible without the help of a friendly Amtrak employee who proved invaluable. On the basis of otherwise insignificant details such as how the track lines and overhead wires ran, etc. he was able to give us cross roads for many of the photos. Then the legwork began, and it was literally a case of knocking door to door and visiting community establishments (churches, schools, clubs, etc.). Obviously I had a lot of contact with local press between NYC and DC, and also had to field a lot of phone calls from people that came out to see the train. On the basis of their descriptions, I had to try and identify them in the photos.
All in all, it was fun and I really enjoyed the experience. I worked like a dog and was exhausted by the end of it, I think if it had been any other project I probably wouldn't have given quite so much to it. On average I was doing 15 hour days, and had 3 days off in 2 months. I had met Paul Fusco during my MRes research, though, and he is a really interesting and generous individual. I felt I owed him, I also loved his photographs (hence the thesis) and thought they deserved wider public acclaim. Also... I have to admit... I am a geek and love puzzles. This was one huge puzzle from beginning to end.
At the end of all this, though, I still
haven't seen the film! I may yet end up cringing at the film I researched. Having witnessed a few interviews taking place, though, I expect it will be pretty darn engaging.
Edited by gigi, 18 July 2010 - 05:18 PM.