Is seeing believing? How documentaries are taking liberties with historical truth

Recreating ‘authenticity’ to engage audiences risks undermining a proper reliance on archive sources, says Robert Fisk


The Independent

When I was five years old, my parents arranged for a local photographer in Maidstone to take a portrait picture of their beloved son. A tall gentleman arrived at our home in Bower Mount Road and photographs were duly taken of your correspondent perched on the sofa in our family sitting room. But my mother wanted some more natural snapshots of little Robert playing with his toy trains on the floor. In those days, expensive photographers not only turned up with tripods and huge black cameras. They also ‘colourised’ their completed photographic prints – and thus sent back the finished product after painting, with water colours, little Robert’s blond hair, pink cheeks, blue pullover and brown sandals.

I was outraged to discover, however, they had muddled the livery of my train set. My fine green-painted London and North Eastern Railway steam loco and trucks had been changed to red. A miniature Great Western loco also appeared in red when it was in reality grey. In those days, like many other five year olds, I was planning a career as a steam engine driver – I already had piles of Ian Allan train-spotter books – and this wilful, lazy photographic distortion of the one trade I took seriously was deeply insulting. I have a faint memory, which my mother later confirmed to be true, that I demanded the photos be sent back to the photographers to be repainted in the real regional colours of my train set, or simply restored to monochrome. Better black and white than this grotesque distortion of reality.

Which is almost exactly what a few dissidents said of Peter Jackson’s “colourisation” and treatment of the black and white Imperial War Museum footage used in his wondrous They Shall Not Grow Old film of the 1914-1918 war. Some of the Great War material used by Jackson was on an epic scale – the soldiers walking across the vast fields of the Somme towards the end of the movie, for example, or the anxiety on those living faces of the future dead as the soldiers of the British empire prepared to go “over the top” – and left me feeling (yes, of course) that I was there. Or if not there, that these men were just like me, would have spoken in accents I would immediately understand, looked like me or my dad (who actually was in the Great War). They were – if I can put it like this – “as of us”.

For years after the colourisation of my train set – however inaccurate it was – my mother would vainly try to explain to me that the colours, however wrong, added authenticity to the picture. And of course this is what the colourisation debate in Jackson’s film, the discussion about actors reciting lip-reading words, and the treatment of footage to “slow” the movie to “real” time – note the repeated need here to use quotation marks – is all about.

It’s not so much whether the colours are 100 per cent “correct”. Jackson could only do his best. What he was trying to do was to bring the past closer to us by adding an authenticity – a “truth” of reality – which was missing from the black and white images. He was not fiddling with the authenticity of the original film; he was enhancing it.




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