Documentaries as Evidence
Some have stated that moving images represent the most important documentary form of the twentieth century. Historian Robert Brent Toplin has become one of the foremost commentators on the history and significance of the medium, and his writings are definitely worth attention by records professionals. A historian at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Toplin has written a series of engaging books about Hollywood’s presentation of history, the work of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and the controversial views of the past by director Oliver Stone.
Toplin’s most recent study in this area concerns Michael Moore’s documentary about the Iraq War, and it is an analysis about the nature of documentary filmmaking, published as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: How One Film Divided a Nation (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006). Toplin, sorting through all the hype and rhetoric about Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, seeks to address what he believes is the “principal question” about the film, “whether the film . . . was truthful in its treatment of recent events” (p. 6). Toplin delves into what we ought to expect of a documentary, emphasizing that all such films are interpretations as well as presentation of evidence about any subject. The historian seeks to understand Moore’s purpose in all his documentaries, discerning that Moore always seeks to provoke and stimulate action.
Toplin also examines how Moore uses little-known sources or re-interprets well-known sources, concluding that the “large aggregate of original source material featured in the movie . . . constitutes a significant accomplishment and a useful contribution to the public discourse on policies” (p. 45). Toplin provides a very balanced assessment of both Moore’s defenders and detractors (he is especially good in comparing Moore’s approach and conclusions to other books and essays on the same subject), while placing the film into the general nature of the documentary and trying to determine the film’s significance. Toplin acknowledges that it is difficult at this stage to appreciate fully the importance of Moore’s film, but he ultimately suggests that the movie “will likely emerge as a significant source in American political history, for it demonstrated the potential of a feature-length documentary film to engage the American people in lively discussion about important political matters” (p. 146). Given this possible impact, archivists and records managers who might ultimately face assessing records, including film, related both to the war and its debate, ought to read Toplin’s interesting study.
Records professionals, and others interested in the nature of our documentary heritage, ought to read assessments such as Toplin because they provide some notion of how many approach the past. Certainly more individuals gain an appreciation for the past by watching documentaries than in visiting archives, libraries, and museums. Based on previous experience, archivists especially know that some documentaries occasionally increase interest by the public in wanting to know about past events and the archival and artifactual evidence remaining to enable an interpretation to be crafted. Toplin’s brief work on Moore’s controversial film adds to our understanding about why and how this happens.