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  (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]