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Bringing voices back from the past

Material about the past in books, plays and film, broadly comes from two sources; historians and storytellers. Whereas, historians mainly focus on the gathering of information and evidence that they then interpret and communicate, storytellers such as film makers and writers, are constrained by the need to tell a good story. A result we see two types of outputs; documentaries and books that aim to be factually correct and novels, films and plays where the facts are secondary to a good story; one that people will pay to read or watch. Historical films and books often 'ride rough shod' through the truth because true events rarely follow the structure of a good story so the choice is either to ‘embellish’, ‘distort’ or ‘not do it at all’.

Historical research can also struggle to bring voices from the past to life because to do so requires much more than the facts of what happened when and where. It is also about personalities and character and how people interact. Film-makers and writers work in this realm of character and voice but this tends to be narrowed down to the few subjects that are viable commercially, mostly the lives of the rich and famous and, even with these, the truth is distorted by the need to tell a good story.

To illustrate this, we might ask a question - what do we know about a normal man or women from the 18th century from the things we’ve read or seen. In films, such a person would mostly feature as an ‘extra’ with a few lines at best - perhaps in a production about a famous person or famous event from the past. In history books, such a person is mostly be seen through information and statistics since little else has survived of their lives. The result is that such people barely exist in our consciousness or, it they do, it is in an extremely sketchy or cliched way. In reality, this person would be complex with complex relationships, just as we have today. So why does this matter? It matters because it leaves us with a very biased and sketchy view of the past and the associated riches of human experience are reduced to almost nothing.

The development of electronic media, however, has the potential to make possible many new ways of bringing voices back from the past, in ways that are not constrained by the issues outlined above. Historical material and archives from the past are much more readily available via the internet than they once were which makes historical research easier for everyone. Film making equipment is cheap and can be as simple as a mobile phone.

The aim of the Lost Voices project is to bring voices from the past to life through film and sound, bridging the separate worlds of historians and film making. Firstly, we asked local museums and historians to suggest local stories from Cambridgeshire’s past that might be brought to life, then we explored these stories through electronic media, sound and film. Two topics were chosen, an old Fenland story called the Dead Moon and the life of the forgotten Cambridgeshire poet James Reynolds Withers, the outputs of which can be viewed on this site (Lost Voices | Wildhead).

Here as some things that we learnt:

1) It is possible to create material very cheaply or with no budget. The sound recording of James Reynolds Wither’s memoir involved nothing more than finding the memoir in the local library, working with an actor to do the reading, which took a couple of hours, and posting it on our website. In total, this took less than a day.

2) The readings of Wither’s poems by local residents on this website were likewise filmed in two afternoons then posted on youtube.

3) The films of Wither’s story and the recording of the Moon and the Badger took a little longer and involved collaboration with an actor and a storyteller. All this, however, could be undertaken by local groups of historians and actors, such as those that can be found in many villages and towns in England. Such material can easily be posted on village or town websites via links to youtube. The process of creating such material, bringing people together such as local historians and actors can, itself, be great fun and help build a sense of community.

4) Within electronic media outlets, materials can be of any length. This reduces the need for narrative structure that so distorts historical dramas. A letter from the archives can be read or a monologue created that can be told simply and truthfully with no great need to turn it into story.

5) The material created can range from the very simple all the way up to a produced, high quality film, involving professional actors, but still outside the world of the traditional creative industries of publishing, TV and film and the constraints they impose.

6) A local museum or parish council could create material through small projects working with local people to post on their website. Doing this would bring people together to learn about and share the history of the place they live. Such projects would also provide an ‘easy entry’ for anyone hoping to develop skills in film making; for example, young people who wish to develop careers in this area.

7) Eventually, it might even be possible to share material created at the local level to audiences across the country. This could be as simple as creating a dedicated youtube channel that would collate material that creators think would be of interest beyond their own area.

8) Bringing voices from the past to life requires real thought about how people lived in the past, including their day to day concerns, the attitudes of the time, their interaction with others, how different personality types would have expressed themselves in different circumstances and so forth. The process of thinking in this way has value in itself because it enables us to see things in new ways.

9) However much we know we, still have to fill in the gaps, such as their back story, personality type, how they behave with different types of people and many more. This can be framed by asking a series of such questions, and answering these questions can provide a means to explore the past.

In conclusion, the accessibility of electronic and film making materials and tools, has created opportunities to explore our past in a exciting, creative new ways. We very much hope to explore these in the years to come.

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