Films with a legitimate claim to the title “documentary” should have a sense of objectivity and be rooted in actual events. The word documentary, after all, refers to evidence observable outside anyone’s creative process.
With any documentary, part of the creator’s contract with the audience is clear before even the audience takes its seat: in what they are about to see, viewers can expect information to have been given a higher value than entertainment or motivation.
It does not follow from this that documentaries will be inherently boring. In fact, documentaries must entertain to attract the highest number of those who would benefit from that particular learning experience. This does not mean making people laugh. It means taking advantage of techniques that make fiction enjoyable: highlighting sources of conflict, creating suspense, overcoming obstacles, celebrating victories and so on.
A high value on information also does not imply that documentaries should lack judgments about good and evil. Documentaries without judgments, either explicitly expressed or left implicit, will be boring. They may even fail to inform, for communication necessarily implies both capable speakers and engaged listeners. An audience should not leave a documentary with the sense that it resembled a high school mathematics lecture.
Nor is an audience fooled for long when someone only pretends to be informing while distorting the evidence, or “misinforming,” to manipulate viewers with political propaganda. Documentary creators must respect an audience’s ability to detect evidence that is not compelling or does not support the creator’s judgment. Nonsense is still nonsense no matter how cleverly one has dressed it.
To be respectful of an audience’s time, documentaries should have a worthy subject, and then treat that subject with a suitable weight. In our case, the British Columbia smallpox epidemics of 1862/63 seem one of the great tragedies in Canadian history. Yet this subject has received little of the attention ordinarily granted such a calamity. Moreover, this depopulation then became instrumental in the imposition of British institutions. Therefore, at least from the indigenous perspective, this historical calamity seems integral to Canada’s constitution. All this has created an injustice worthy of study and correction.
Some notable dramatic filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick and Michelangelo Antonioni, created documentaries during their careers. The French New Wave, Andrei Tarkovsky and others imported documentary sensibilities into their fiction. In all those cases, however, the challenge was creating a story around events that could be captured as they happened. With an historical subject, we cannot do that.
A lack of video, or even photographs, from our subject’s time period also limits our choices. We cannot dip into any archive of newsreels. Re-enactments have some advantage in showing rather than telling. And, in our case, could be effective in showing how smallpox arrived in some communities. Yet even the best re-enactments are still a compromise with fiction. Without a feature film budget, they can distort by giving a disproportionate attention to evidence that lends itself to that treatment while distracting attention from the subject’s whole scope and scale. This last consideration seems very probable in our case.
Our documentary subject poses other unique challenges. Chief among these is the very different take on it depending on where one is sitting. The more we listened to native sources over many years, the more it became clear that respected elders have always maintained that the smallpox epidemics of 1862/63 were part of a “war of extermination,” ethnic cleansing, the killing of innocents or however one calls what is now legally defined as genocide. Since the publication of “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific” several others from diverse native communities have confirmed to us just how widespread this teaching is: almost every informed native has heard it.
If we were then to tell this as primarily a native story, we might seek native speakers from assorted communities who would share the oral tradition as “talking heads.” The disadvantage of this is twofold. First, given its importance in relation to modern treaties, land use controversies and the Canadian constitutional rights of B.C. natives, non-natives may see a motive in these speeches to have the oral history align with current native interests and agendas. It exposes respected native speakers to dishonorable attacks on their credibility.
Second, if the general public, or Canadian historians, were minded to give the oral tradition credence, then the elders’ allegations already would be in the common fabric of Canadian history. Instead, the allegations are denied or ignored in what, if they are true, would seem an exercise in silencing any mention by an oppressed community of the dominant community’s ugly history. Simply providing a new forum for the expression of these allegations may not reach the most needful audience.
From the very first, the colonial tradition has been that the native allegations of a deliberate killing of innocents were mere superstition. Even today, no matter how many times researchers encounter the same theme in oral traditions, Canadian historians and educational or other authorities remain steadfastly committed to a narrative that the smallpox epidemics of 1862/63 were only a natural disaster. So, if we were to tell this story through the voice of university experts on Canadian history then we would have “talking heads” denying the oral tradition on the supposed authority of the written tradition. Native elders, they would say, are wrong.
Both the oral and the colonial tradition cannot be true. One is true; the other is mistaken. Any audience presented with a simple mixture from these two kinds of sources, without being offered even any attempt at reconciliation, may leave its seats with a sense of not having been informed.
Throughout all this, one must work under the provisional judgment that the oral tradition may be correct. If it is, then one must take care to honor the memory of the victims with the same respect usually shown to other such victims around the world. One must also consider that the common post-genocidal practice of denying the crime and silencing afflicted groups risks creating new instances of genocidal activity, as legally defined, by causing serious mental harm to the descendants of survivors. Like a physician, a documentary creator should, first, do no harm.
The audience for a documentary on this subject will contain other victims who deserve respect. These are the Canadian immigrants and successive generations of students who have tried in good faith to learn the historical context of their circumstances but who have been denied access to the native elders’ account by the intermediation of Canadian historians clinging to colonialism as something virtuous. These victims resemble third parties who have been defrauded while unknowingly purchasing stolen goods from a thief. In the result, while they have done little wrong themselves, they are enjoying the unearned benefits of a crime while being made parties to the system that enabled and encouraged it. In such cases, decent people know that it is both honorable and in one’s true best interest to return the goods to the first victims, rather than to ratify the crime by keeping the goods, and then to pursue his or her own remedy against those who committed the fraud. First, however, they need to be convinced of the fraud.
Given these considerations, the critical question seems whether the written record, properly considered, actually might corroborate the oral tradition. For that reason, the narrative constructed for our documentary, The Great Darkening, lets the written record speak for itself, in its own various voices, as much as possible. Around this, other voices provide context and insight into the native perspective, primarily from information already in the record.
In the end, the audience should learn that information concerning these smallpox epidemics from both native and non-native sources can be reconciled to tell only one consistent story. Truth, after all is said and done, has the virtue of consistency. And, in this case, it sides with the elders’ version of B.C. history.