While filming a video about the 1851 Provo River Battle for a history class with a friend, two of our subjects broke away from discussing the topic and spoke about the responsibility of history, that we need to come to an understanding of the past in order to accurately reconcile ourselves with our surroundings. The subject was a little-known but highly influential two-week military attack on the Native Americans living in Utah Valley in the 1850s, and while I got the facts I expected I did not anticipate such personal and apathetic commentary. Based on this, I saw an opportunity to create a documentary within a documentary in covering not only the story of the battle but the story of our discovery in researching the event and historians’ journey in reconciling themselves with the tragedy. We also saw the opportunity to apply the participatory mode and went on the streets of Provo and told random pedestrians about the Provo River Battle and asked them what they thought of that.
Condensing the documentary-within-a-documentary idea gave me Reconciliation, which is a combination of our street work and the talking-head interviews from the historians Forrest Cuch (Ute Nation) and Robert Carter (Provo City). It is a synthesis of many of the different documentary modes: not only participatory, but anthropological and essayistic. My goal was, to rephrase Bill Nichols, to “speak with them and you,” to make this a three-way conversation between my partner and I as the filmmakers, the historians we interviewed, and the audience, to make the talking-head interviews into a personal conversation, not a direct transfer of information.
I chose to film these interviews as medium shots, rather than more traditional tight shots, for this reason. I wanted to maintain a level of academic formality, yet hint at a candid, informal relationship by capturing more of the historians than just their face and shoulders like other documentary filmmakers such as Ken Burns allow. The incidental landscape surrounding the historians was just as interesting as what they had to say – Forrest Cuch in his home on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, and Robert Carter in an 1851 adobe house at the Provo Pioneer Village Museum. Forrest’s colorful, varied surroundings contrast with the bare plaster and wood of the historic location Robert Carter chose which visually represents the cultural divide that continues a century and a half since the battle.
Regarding what modes apply to this project, while I or my partner do not appear on screen, it is participatory in that we kept our voices audible, forming a conversation with our subjects as Joshua Oppenheimer did throughout The Act of Killing. Anthropologically, I wanted to capture the behavior of the historians as much as what they had to say. This was a study of the historical method and how professional historians apply their studies to their philosophies and practices. By Nichols’ definition, it is more rhetorical than narrative, since the focus is not on the story itself but on the meaning and significance of the story. It is essayistic in that it is not straightforward narration, but personal musings on the importance of historical literacy.
Outside of what this project portrays, I considered that now is the best time for such a documentary to be made. Not only is there a wealth of new research on Native American history to work from, nonfiction filmmaking has progressed to the point that there is a broad range of stylistic modes to choose from. If I were to have done this ten years ago, the social climate may not have been favorable to discuss the dark side of Utah’s settlement. A documentary about settler/Indian conflict from before 2000 would probably take the form of a formal narrative from the perspective of the fort looking out, telling the factual story from the perspective of the settlers. A film stepping back from the story to address its emotional and social consequences of would probably be very unlikely, since the definition and value of documentary changes over time. Not only is the subject challenging but the way the historians address the subject is challenging; both history and documentary have progressed greatly since the early films like Nanook of the North when there was no sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
The downside to this project is the time limit, but even with 20 or 30 minutes it would be difficult to tell this story. There is just too much to cram into a short film, and it is difficult to synchronize the historical story of the battle with the modern story of people’s reconciliation with the past – too much has to be cut out to keep it cohesive; it’s almost one or the other. Much like Bert Haanstra’s experience making Glass (1958), there is a strong divide between what I want as the creator and what I know the different audiences expect out of a documentary.