Audiovisual Democracy


This week in South African History in the Digital Age, we are continuing to focus on Audio-Visual Sources of the Liberation Struggle, exploring the Community Video Education Trust (CVET) and the BBC Archive: Apartheid in South Africa.  These two sites are, though both archives of audiovisual sources on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, inherently different.   The BBC Archive is a highly curated collection of produced documentaries and TV segments (along with some documents related to the videos themselves).  CVET, on the other hand, is a large, more lightly curated collection of raw video footage related to the struggle.  The CVET collection is much larger and more diverse than the BBC collection, but each individual collection illustrates the benefits of the type of footage that it is offering.

CVET, for example, illustrates the power of raw footage; footage that, as Anirudh Deshpande put it, “is necessary to refresh social memory and public history” (Deshpande, 4456-4457).  For me, the videos on the CVET site which most fully “refreshed” my perspective were the numerous videos of funerals.  Many times, histories of the anti-apartheid struggle get caught up in the struggle narrative, with leaders giving their lives for the cause, with ordinary people pushed into the background.  This kind of footage fundamentally shifts that perspective, jarring the viewer into the reality of the violence of the 1980s/1990s. The BBC videos, on the other hand, illustrate the power of the documentary format; blending interviews with music, images, and narration to portray powerful stories about the harsh realities of apartheid in South Africa.  These segments also provide a new perspective on apartheid; how the wider world viewed the events unfolding from the outside looking in.  The piece Panorama: Union of South Africa provides an early window into the events unfolding in a very young apartheid nation.  Both CVET and the BBC Archive show the great potential of audiovisual materials, in a variety of forms, to aid us in telling the story of apartheid in South Africa.

As historians, we tend to privilege written sources over any alternatives.  Deshpande addressed this, challenging historians’ arrogance about the superiority of written sources:  “Why should historians trivialise what people say and record in their peculiar ways? Why cannot these popular records be held on par with official or unofficial written documents?  Why should historians give literacy precedence over other forms of information and knowledge?” (Deshpande, 4457).  As Jacqueline Mainguard wrote in a 1995 article for the Journal of Southern African Studies, “no single cultural form is able to express the full experience of apartheid although specific representations may seem to fulfill a sense of the totality of the experience” (Mainguard, 659).  We are not limited to either written nor audiovisual materials exclusively; why should we not use all available sources to not only construct histories of apartheid, but also to just understand the realities of this important period in South African history?

This line of thought reminds me of our discussions of oral history during class last week, especially the argument I found myself drawn into with a classmate on his blog.  Whereas I have always strongly associated oral history with visual imagery, integrating environmental and behavioral notations into my transcripts and preferring videotaped interviews to audio recordings,  my friend found that transcripts of oral histories provided as much as any audiovisual representation could.  As I contemplated his position, I started to think about how audiovisual representation can also aid historians in reaching a broader audience.  I have always planned on producing some kind of audiovisual project to go along with my dissertation, but this betrays my training and my intellectual bias.

To me, oral history and audiovisual representations have always gone hand-in-hand.  My first foray into oral history came from my participation in the Belmont Oral History Project, a collaborative effort in which I, along with three other undergraduate students, collected interviews to produce a documentary on the history of our institution’s transition to a co-educational institution in the 1950s.  There was something about seeing how people reacted to certain questions, to the way that their memories lit up their faces, and so on that made me fall in love with the actual act of “doing” history. But, beyond that, it also showed me the power of film–the combination of images, interviews, music, lighting, and so on–to convey a vast amount of information in a digestible format to a much broader audience than would have been possible through a research paper and, perhaps, more effectively than a historian can hope to do in prose.

This also connects to a point that Anirudh Deshpande makes in “Films as Historical Sources or Alternative History” (2004).  Deshpande writes,

Historians…try to paint a holistic picture of the past but very few of them are writers of prose good enough to successfully do so.  In contrast, the capability of a good film to bring alive, figuratively speaking, various dimensions and details of a social setting simultaneously is impressive. (Deshpande, 4458)

As historians, our writing will only ever be read by a certain audience; as unfortunate as this is, it’s true.  But film holds potential to reach a broader audience in meaningful ways.  In this way, debates over audiovisual versus written sources and/or accounts of history are explicitly connected to conversations that we have had about digital history and the democratization of knowledge throughout the semester thus far.

Sean Field made a similar argument in a selection from Oral History, Community, and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2010) that was assigned last week.  Though his broader point in the piece was to make a case that there was something inherently different about recording interviews on film as opposed to audio recordings or transcripts, Field also pointed to the potential of audiovisual presentations of knowledge to aid historians in the democratization and dissemination of knowledge for a broader audience.

But for oral historians who wish to use their methodology to bring about political change, I would suggest that, given the multimedia societies that we now live in, the impulse to choose audiovisual oral history must become stronger.  For our political or educational endeavors to be more effective, the public impact of oral history becomes a driving motive.  Yes, print media, especially books and newspaper articles, will remain a crucial avenue for making political statements.  But, most certainly in the South African context, audiovisual oral histories and the production of historical film documentaries have the potential to reach a far greater number of people and a wider generational and cultural diversity of audiences. (Field, 132)

Like I’ve mentioned before, history for me is about more than sitting in a library, producing scholarship for other academics that will never have an impact on the wider world.  I don’t think that my work will ever “change the world” but I think that there are opportunities to use different technologies to spread knowledge to greater numbers of people than would ever read my work in an academic journal or a university press-published text.  Maybe that’s idealistic of me, but that’s how I entered the field of history and that’s the philosophy that I carry with me.  And, I think, the collections for this week illustrate the power of film; not only to convey information, but also to elicit emotional responses to footage, thus, as Deshpande put it, refreshing “social memory and public history”.


  • Community Video Education Trust
  • BBC Archive: Apartheid in South Africa
  • Anirudh Deshpande, “Films as Historical Sources or Alternative History,” Economic and Political Weekly 39 [40] (2004): 4455-4459 [view pdf]
  • Jaqueline Mainguard, “Trends in South African Documentary Film and Video: Questions of Identity and Subjectivity,” Journal of Southern African Studies 21, 4 (1995): 657-667 [view pdf]
  • Sean Field, “There Your Memory Runs Like a Camera Back: Moving Places and Audiovisual Oral Histories from Klipfontein Road,”  in Oral History, Community, and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2012), pp. 117-132 [view PDF]

This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for February 13th.

10 thoughts on “Audiovisual Democracy

  1. Thank you for another insightful post.

    I agree with much of what you’ve said. For example, an exclusive focus on written text does tend to marginalize oral traditions. Does that fact help us assign epistemological values to other sources? In other words can we establish equal value between film in this case, and documents or oral sources? Does that evaluation apply in general or in particular?

    My answer; perhaps, but not necessarily. It is an exercise in the abstract to suggest that one source is of equal value as another without first considering methods for evaluating sources. Those methods are well established for oral traditions. Deshpande suggest similar methods exist for evaluating film as history.

    In some ways, I think about professional historians as financial advisers. Rather than compounding interests and tax stratifies though, the historian helps people identify the tools (methods) to best accomplish specific goals (knowledge). Skill relates to their ability to recognize value.

    Surely I’m not the not the only one who takes a pencil to the table of contents of a new edited volume (not from the library). Flipping through the first few pages of Donald Crummey’s book Banditry, Rebellion, & Social Protest in Africa, I remember thinking “what can I learn from a chapter on Songs and Perceptions of Power in Colonial Mozambique”…and “who is Leroy Vail anyway”? We are not born with the historiography, so it’s no shame to admit it now, but all of my questions were answered when I finally did read the chapter. Rather than assigning the equal values to song and written source, Vail dedicates page after masterful page to context, method and evaluation of Chopi music. “The form…legitimizes content” he argues, because people could attack authority with song in ways they could not with regular speech; at least not without some pain.

    I would also concede the point that an audio sample would have improved my feeble efforts to use Vail’s conclusion during a recitation section last semester. Many thanks again for the great post!

    1. It’s starting to feel like I’m in for a fight when you start your comments with a compliment. I was not implying that the written word should be replaced by audiovisual sources. I’m a historian. I’m a writer. Those are core components of my identity. Filmmaker, digital historian, etc. are not part of those core elements of my identity.

      Should there be a methodology for using audiovisual sources? Yes, absolutely. Are the written word and audiovisual sources equal in terms of their value? Probably not. But are they equitable? Maybe they should be.

  2. I agree with your argument that history should not simply be a conversation between academic scholars, and that multimedia is perhaps especially well-suited to public history. And of course I concur with your assertion that historians of contemporary South Africa should engage with a variety of source materials. Archived documents and newspaper accounts are simply a tiny sliver of the available testimony on subjects like these.

    However, I think that your (and the authors’) argument for the value of oral, audio, and visual source material could be qualified a bit. For someone trying to reconstruct anti-Apartheid resistance in the townships of South Africa in the 1980s, of course personal testimony and video recordings are valuable, and in most cases, probably far richer sources than the traditional historical sources found in libraries and archives. For someone like John Thornton, who writes about West-Central Africa in the sixteenth century, these sources simply do not exist. He can go ask people in Luanda about sixteenth-century catholicism till the sun goes down, and it will produce nothing of value.

    So I think the discussion needs to be framed not in terms of oral and audiovisual history being equal to archival sources in terms of their validity, but in terms of what they are useful for. If you want to understand how people percieved the construction of a new neighborhood, it is far more valuable to ask them than it is to look at construction records. If you want to know how much concrete was poured, and the quality of the materials used in construction, it is far more useful to consult records than it is to ask laypersons who moved into the neighborhood.

    Oral history, for example, is always a prisoner to the present. If one is writing about the present, or about experiences within the lived memory of informants, this is less problematic. Jan Vansina, among others, has put forward some methods we can use to better understand how the oral testimony of the present about events in the distant past may have been shaped by the actual events of the past. This is well and good, and alongside archaeology it can be crucial to understanding the history of places for which there are no extant documents.

    But this is not an equivalent alternative to documentary sources. A document produced by a court clerk in eighteenth-century Jamaica is a record of what an actual person who lived three centuries ago did in the world. You can hold the document in your hand, you can see where the author’s quill began to run dry and where fresh ink was applied. You are reading the actual words of dead people. This doesn’t mean that the contents of these records are somehow above critical scrutiny, but it means that they offer a window into the past that is in many ways far, far more transparent than something like oral history can provide.

    Just to be clear, I am in full agreement with your post. I consider this to be more of an addendum. Sometimes it seems that proponents of non-documentary sources for history (and I consider myself in that camp, for all the reasons you illustrated above) make the argument that the subjective character of archival documents makes them no more or less valuable than any other source of information. I would caution that they are indeed more valuable, for certain purposes. For other purposes they can be far, far less valuable. Instead of arguing about whether the screwdriver is an equal tool to the hammer, we (especially in African history, where this refrain seems to be humming constantly in the background) might do well to move forward and think about the utility of each source on its own merits.

    Anyway, great post!

  3. It looks like all the love is on Liz’s blog this Valentines day. Everyone knows a compliment sandwich is the best way to give and get criticism. Both of you have made some great points here, but I think Barsom’s point that we should be thinking about the various ways video sources homes in on the real issue here. We all want to do good work and use the best sources [as different tools] to get the job done. For me this discussion has raised some great questions about what a video method would look like. For example, in what ways are filmed interviews like oral interviews and do they require additional methodological considerations? Do we consider documentary film as we would a secondary source? How do we identify the varying degrees of originality and authenticity within video sources?

    I don’t know how Andrew and Akil feel, but in one way I envy my colleagues who are doing work in the more recent past [Timbs, Lankford, Bonilla and others] because you have all this stuff, and in another way I don’t because you are going to have to help define how this stuff is used through your work. The rest of us get to fulfill our discourse shaping responsibilities by simply participating in lively discussions. Remember my Bill O’Reilly
    “[expletive deleted] it! I’ll do live” impression last Thursday night? Who says grad seminars are boring? Anyway, I look forward to many more.

  4. John Thornton vs Sean Field: sounds like a good UFC bout. But seriously, excellent post and wonderful discussion. A pleasure to read!

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