The Trouble With History

by Zack on June 30, 2010

My love of history was one of the biggest factors that attracted me to this project when Mike approached me a year and a half ago. I am uncomfortably fond of libraries and books, my work as a TV host and writer involved extensive researching and interviewing and I spend so much time reading that the woman in my life has affectionately termed me a “nerd.” So if Mike had approached me with an idea for a Sci-Fi story and script I probably wouldn’t have engaged. He didn’t, though, and here we are.

But a story like Joseph Kershner’s is a tough nut to crack. 1920 was a very very long time ago, and the events took place in a region that – how can I put this nicely – isn’t known for transparency or its record-keeping acumen. There are some historical records, and we are digging those up with moderate success. But a large portion of our information comes from oral histories – personal accounts and interviews conducted with primary and secondary participants 50 years after the events took place.

This is problematic, as a historian recently noted to The Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent blog post.

All oral histories are “memory” — retrospective accounts, in contrast with documents like wills or memos that were produced when events were actually taking place. Over time, people forget and revise, as when many Holocaust survivors began to retell their stories to match up with the narrative of Schindler’s List. It is not dishonesty — it just makes oral histories a particular type of document, which we need to note has been produced AFTER the event.

The point is … to say that historians approach ALL objects, interviews, accounts, documents, stories…as imperfect and incomplete — *but then also use them*. As imperfect as they are, this evidence is all we have if we want to reconstruct the past. There is no “god’s word” out there — it’s all full of holes and biases and problems. Being a historian means exposing the problems, and then dealing with them in as open a way as you can. There is no secondary source without a primary source; there is no history without the process of “situating” and “contextualizing” — that is, taking a source figuring out what it can tell us.

Luckily, there is much more room for adaption with a screenplay. While we aspire to tell this story in the most honest and representative way possible, we are clearly going to have to make some sacrifices for clarity, dramatic effect and tight story-telling (to say nothing of selling the damn thing). But the documentary has less wiggle room. The documentary is going to show (hopefully!) how we find and how Mike deals with all of this information about a very important man that he never even met.

Will we find what we expect? Doubtful. Will we be disappointed? Possibly, but hopefully not. But it’s an important journey nonetheless and we thank everyone who has helped to make this project possible. And everyone who has given us the opportunity to travel to Europe to uncover more than the oral histories that got us started; a chance to analyze and consider ALL the objects that will help to tell Joseph’s tale.

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