Drawn To The Past

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 Animation has come to historical documentaries. Perhaps inspired by the success of animated fictional films such as Waking Life (2001), nonfiction filmmakers are choosing to illustrate the past rather than rely on archival images or reenacted scenes.

Such use of animated images introduces some thorny issues. Is it right to call these “documentaries”? Don’t documentary films—by definition—depict real events with authentic photographic images and genuine artifacts? Can a film that uses an artist’s illustrations of history really purport to be telling the truth about the past?

Artists’ renderings can be every bit as reliable or unreliable as dramatic reenactments, or even interviews with experts. The content is only as good as the evidence that supports it; the accuracy of a documentary doesn’t depend on how its imagery is produced but rather on the intentions of its creators.

Two of the most notable animated documentaries are Waltz with Bashir (2008), a film about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangists, and Chicago 10 (2007), a look at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the conspiracy trial that followed. The former is the more effective. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman videotaped long interviews with fellow Army veterans and then worked with animators to re-create not only the interviews but also many scenes of the invasion based on the soldiers’ recollections. Stunningly realistic and yet dreamlike, the film brings the past alive in a frankly subjective but totally believable way.

Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10 takes a more traditional documentary path, blending archival news footage with animation to re-create the riots at the Chicago convention as well as the trial that followed. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and their alleged coconspirators and prosecutors are given voice by Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and Nick Nolte. Roy Scheider reads the unforgettable Judge Julius Hoffman. While the film has some almost cartoonish moments, it’s easy to forgive the filmmakers, because there was much about the 1960s and the trial in particular that seemed bizarre and cartoonlike. The Yippie protagonists certainly did their best to foster that illusion.

Both these films depict events heavily documented by moving pictures and still photography—a tremendous aid in rendering the past in drawings. Other films have taken on the challenge of animating stories that predate photography. Shays’ Rebellion: America’s First Civil War (The History Channel, 2006) uses a simple, hand-drawn style of 2D animation. Several upcoming PBS documentaries blend animation with more traditional documentary techniques, including a biography of 19th-century American novelist Louisa May Alcott and a profile of the controversial American anthropologist and pioneer of African studies Melville J. Herskovits. Mountain Lake PBS of Plattsburgh, New York, is producing documentaries containing animation on the French and Indian War and the French explorer Samuel de Champlain. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant for the Mountain Lake PBS French and Indian War project.)

New computer animation techniques have helped fuel the production of feature-length animated films, but technology doesn’t always make the process easier or cheaper. Waltz with Bashir reportedly took five years to complete, and Folman has been quoted as saying that pitching an animated documentary to investors proved a hard sell.

Nor is the genre entirely new. In 1918 artist and cartoonist Winsor McCay released The Sinking of the Lusitania, an animated short about the British liner torpedoed by a German U-boat. While some viewers may not like animation in their documentaries, it seems to me just another intriguing technique through which to bring the past alive.