sábado, 28 de marzo de 2009

Using Knowledge & Compelling Images to Create the Narrative

One of the problems with human perception is that it is tied to our already-existing store of knowledge. So if a person says, for instance, ‘big man,’ one might picture a man of one’s own race or ethnicity – when in fact the truth might be just the opposite. And this characteristic of perception becomes more pronounced in dealing with qualitative descriptors rather than quantitative ones – intangibles, concepts and ideas. What is ‘good,’ or ‘competent,’ or ‘intelligent’?

This is what makes film (and especially the documentary or historical re-creation forms so compelling and valuable) – you can show an image, establishing quite quickly (and definitely) the physical qualities of the person or situation at hand. Of course, in documentary, persons can dissemble (or just get it wrong), making the task more difficult, but the filmmaker still has more impact on the audience’s view of things than one does when writing a book. (And this aspect of filmmaking is what keeps writers writing – most would rather have the ability to use and exploit their readers’ imaginations than to delineate clearly who is doing what.)

So in more ways than one, a picture is worth a thousand words – and often many more than that. One example of this situation might be taken from the study of history. When the average person hears about ‘the Crusades,’ for example, he or she might think of a single picture – Richard Lionheart leading a host into battle against ‘the infidel.’ But that is an image that’s been built on many misconceptions, not the least is that the Crusades were holy wars waged by clean and honorable men against a backward and uncivilised race of heathens.

In truth, both sides saw the other as ‘infidels,’ and both sides saw themselves as the righteous upholders of ‘God’s Way’ (sound familiar?). To understand the breadth and depth of this misunderstanding, one must know about what was going on in the world at that time. The sciences as we know them had not yet been invented: medicine was in a sorry state, and hygiene was worse. People did not much understand the relationship between cleanliness and good health, and lives were on average much shorter and lived with much less robust health. ‘Muslim’ scientists were faring a bit better than Europeans, having come up with mapmaking, algebra, astrology, medical treatments, and other important fields – but many of these sciences were still in their infancies – and without the tradition of rich communication between scholars, advances were understandably slow in coming.

In addition, politics as we know it did not exist – money was relatively new to most people, and the internal politics of Europe had shrunk to what most people call ‘the feudal system’ without much understanding of what that might entail. Governments and towns had shrunk to vast landed estates in the hands of the ‘wealthy’ – lands which were the only places that people could survive. There was no industry as we think of it, since the economics of the times – barons and dukes used what riches there were (often not in the form of ‘money’ but in much more valuable commodities) to wage wars or to protect their estates, keeping the common people tied to what were in effect ‘plantations’ where almost all the necessities of life were grown or made by local labor. Trade was rare, and was used mostly for things that could not be made or grown locally.

The lords of this system were not the clean, well-scrubbed pictures of health that we see in most films. The warriors of that time had more in common with the Vikings than with the cavaliers of later times – in fact, many of them were only a step or two removed from Vikings themselves. Picture a system of government (actually a series of tenuous truces and wartime alliances-of-convenience, paid for by tribute taken at sword-point) run by uncouth and dangerous bikers – for that is the closest we can come to drawing a fair image of who the barons and dukes were. While earlier kings were ‘men of the strong arm’ – men who could best others in battle, who were accustomed to taking what they wanted and washing away the pain with wine or other euphorics – the barons and dukes ran things under the eye of kings who were often men less able in battle. None of these were the leaders that Washington and Jefferson later sought to become – the warriors of old were men who killed without much feeling and took the women left behind without much grace. They were the Hell’s Angels of their day, except that they led armies and adopted the pretense of being descended from (or granted immunity by) God.

Europe was filled with these petty barons and dukes – a nasty lot almost every single one of them, each fighting for a share of the spoils and each defending his own ground against neighbors who would take it from him by force (and ‘by force’ generally meant the most indelicate of violence). Of course, there were some among them who aspired to higher morals and ethics; but many, as well as being paid killers in wartime, were murderers in peacetime – if a noble wanted something, he might simply kill the owner in order to get it. And often, what was wanted by the ruling class was in the hands of the church.

The first Crusade (1095 CE) became a way that the weaker kings and the Church (long a victim of the warring nobles) could rid Europe of these gangs of marauders. The bishops sent word around that any person who went to kill infidels in the Holy Land (to take back the sacred ground upon which the Savior had walked) would be granted a place in heaven, no matter what crimes had been committed before. And a madness swept through Europe that is difficult to imagine but easy to understand: the serfs had little happiness on earth (so the everlasting reward of heaven looked pretty good), and the barons and dukes were greedy for spoils, as well as having a fair interest in expiating their numerous beastly sins.

And off these eager ‘penitents’ went, to kill an enemy they did not know and could not understand, because education had been closely guarded for centuries – kept within a relatively small group of ‘chosen elite’ (chronicles of travelers of the time were rare and expensive, and most learning came by word of mouth, relating mostly to the daily needs of life: farming, tanning, food preservation, carpentry, metal-working, weaving, and the knowledge of other skills based on what was needed to survive). Most of them had never seen a ‘Saracen’ or a ‘Turk,’ a ‘Paynim’or a ‘Persian.’ A ‘heathen’ is defined as one who does not believe in God, but the Muslims had a strong belief in God – and, in fact, in the same God that demanded sacrifice of Abraham: the Jewish line came from Abraham’s son Isaac and the Muslim line came from Isaac’s brother Ishmael. So ‘heathens’ these people were clearly not.

Most had no idea what lay ahead of them during the first Crusade, but they tramped through Italy and Hungary to get to the Holy Land. In Hungary they fared worst, their huge hordes (hundreds of thousands of starving and ragged souls) were cut down by local residents weary of their depredations. Tens of thousands were killed or died along the way, before even getting out of Europe. Many more were lost at sea, and the ones who did arrive in the Holy Land saw many of their number cut down by prime fighting forces of Kerbogha of Mosul and other skilled warrior-chieftains. All in all, a violent and unpleasant business, as wars always are.

So that’s the layout of our story, thus far – and how can the narrative deal with the deviation from actual fact, a deviation that ‘history’ has persuaded us to accept as truth? First, consider that ‘narrative’ is either causal or cumulative – that is, it is either an argument laid out in a series of incidents or events that each create or cause the next, or it is a collection of (possibly) unrelated facts or events that is presented that add up to a conclusion. So, by carefully studying the time period and the manners and culture operating at that time, the filmmaker is presumed to be able to bring an immediate and pervasive sense of factuality to the proceedings, taking care to consider language and social protocols when deciding what to show and what not to show. And by explaining (either through exposition or carefully-wrought action) the background explicitly, the filmmaker can build an almost-instinctual knowledge into the audience, so that when one sees a specific action or object, one knows (more or less) precisely what it means.

This is the job of the filmmaker, to vivify a story – to enliven ‘mere words’ with pictures and to bring a deeper truth to the audience. And by educating oneself completely in the ways and manners of the persons who will people the story and drive the action (whether fictional narrative or documentary review of facts), the filmmaker can hope to have an audience that possesses enough of the idea of things to understand the new data that the filmmaker hopes to elucidate.

As filmmakers, we are not the warrior barons and dukes, forcing ourselves and our ideas on an unwilling enemy (though to hear the use of music in some films, one would definitely think otherwise), nor are we at our best when following the ways of others in unfamiliar territory. And we are not the single-minded ideologues who would have the whole world believe as we do, nor are we ignorant of the world around us.

No, we strive to learn more about that world, in order to better tell our stories, and – at our best – we are persons of vision, persons who have a definite idea how to make the world a better place, persons who have the strength of conviction and a taste for repeated stumbled, but who will always get up and go for another shot. And we are able to convince – by our vision, but also by our powers of persuasion (storytelling) – a crowd of very talented people to come along with us in the making of something special, something unique, something perhaps historic.

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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