I love documentaries. Not nature documentaries, whether they are of the cute, cheesy variety or of the ultra realistic kind –which, for some reason or other, always include grisly scenes of bigger animals killing smaller animals. I mean culture documentary films. My second dream job after university teacher, is ‘documentary film maker’. (Actually this is what I wanted to be in the first place though I never found out how to set about becoming one. Too late!)
Anyway, I find documentaries a very good complement to reading non-fiction and, generally essays, as this what they are: ‘audiovisual essays’. Of course they are films (they have two Oscar categories for short and long), and, thus, not to be confused with print essays, yet the point is similar: offering information articulated on the basis of a thesis supported by plenty of research. This morning, for instance, I have seen an excellent production by Jordi Fortuny, La gran aventura de la Canadiense (2012, RTVE, TVC and Batabat) which narrates how a combination of local engineering talent and the visionary energy of American entrepreneur Frederick Stark Pearson resulted in the building in the Pyrenees of the dams that brought electricity to Catalonia in the early 20th century (https://www.tv3.cat/videos/4368090/La-gran-aventura-de-La-Canadenca). I had previously read Xavier Moret’s also excellent Dr. Pearson, l’home que va portar la llum a Catalunya (2004) but missed an audiovisual illustration to this volume, so I’m happy that Fortuny has supplied it. And, outlandish as the subject may seem, believe me, it is very interesting –as a Catalan, I have learned about the modernisation of my country, and as a specialist in English Studies, I have also learned that the hand of American industry reached unexpected places in the 20th century.
YouTube is, of course, a wonderful tool regardless of all its illegalities and I have enjoyed three very good hours this week watching the BBC’s mini-documentary series Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs (2012). This is particularly touching, as the presenter, Dr. Pamela Cox, explains that she would like the series to be seen as an homage to women like her two grandmothers, both lowly maids of all work . If you think that Upstairs, Downstairs, or Downtown Abbey are reliable guides to the British class system this series has much to teach you. If you have read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Dr. Cox provides a fascinating complement, teaching you for instance that Darlington Hall is after all, a little miracle as 1,000 big houses like that have been pulled down since World War II. Also, that very rich people were (or are?) amazingly stingy with those who, literally, cleaned up their shit. (I was myself an au-pair for one year … and that’s a subject for yet another mini-series.)
All this is a sort of overlong prologue to what I really wanted to comment on today. I read a comment on You Tube by an American viewer, thanking (piratical) YouTubers for uploading thrilling material. If it weren’t for you, this person writes, “I might have to read a book to learn!”. To be fair, I think this person means that without the UK YouTube pirates, s/he would miss much of interest for him/her at the other side of the Atlantic. In the same way, I would never have seen Servants (not available on DVD) and so, if interested in the topic, should have read instead, for instance, Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney (2011), or the similarly titled Life Below Stairs: The Real Lives of Servants, the Edwardian Era to 1939 by Pamela Horn (2012). I want to believe that this person is NOT saying that documentaries make reading unnecessary particularly because, well, it takes plenty of reading (yes, research) to make a documentary. I don’t know, by the way, whether I’ll read Maloney’s and Horn’s books, but Dr Cox’s documentary certainly got me interested in Margaret Powell’s 1968 best-seller Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid –which, ironically, seems to be one of the sources for Downtown Abbey.
In my own cultural practice, in short, there is an absolute continuum between reading and seeing. I want to believe this is the case with most educated people and that the separation between seeing and reading is not as widespread as I fear. Simply, reading a book-length essay, which may expand for many hours, tends to offer much more detail than seeing a documentary (even a mini series), whereas seeing may offer audio-visual documents that print texts cannot accommodate (not to mention the fact that those that can be indeed offered, like photographs, are still absent from most academic writing). To go back to my first example, I have learned much more from combining Fortuny’s documentary with Moret’s book about Pearson that I would have learned by consuming them in isolation. It’s only common sense, isn’t it?
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