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Update: Past Is Prologue: Historical Documentaries

UPDATE: James Greenberg from the Hollywood Reporter reviews NANKING: “Indispensable, beautifully crafted account of a little-known Japanese massacre.” It had its limited theatrical release in December 2007.

UPDATE: WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN was released in theatres and on DVD this past August, Dennis Harvey from Variety had this to say: “Film’s sobering impact lets the images and witnesses’ words speak for themselves.”




During the week a number of historical documentaries are testing out George Santayana’s classic saw, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Indeed while many Sundance documentaries bring to light the harsh realities of contemporary life — the war in Iraq (NO END IN SIGHT) [], Global Warming (EVERYTHING’S COOL) [], Dafur (THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK) [] — quite a few others dig deep into the past. Among the documentaries digging into our collective pasts are: BANISHED [], CHASING GHOSTS [], GIRL 27 [], NANKING [], WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN [], and CHICAGO 10 [].

On Sunday, historian Ian Burma [] headed up a panel “History is Made” in which a number of documentary filmmakers (and one narrative director) considered the question of history and its discontents. In the panel, Burma point-blank asked, “Is it realistic to say that we can learn from history? You tell people over and over again how horrible Hiroshima was or the Nanking massacre, but does that stop us from doing those things all over again?” The question of historical filmmaking as activism indeed haunted all of the works at the panel. After the panel, we asked Burma what a documentary, rather than a traditional history text, can do differently. “Since history is taught less and less at school,” responded Burma. “Books and films about history are taking up some of the slack. A documentary film or feature film on historical subjects can’t do the same as a rigorous book in terms of thoroughness or analysis, but can do different things, sometimes more powerfully; it can give us a more intimate view of the past, through individual experiences.”


Each of the filmmakers on the panel seemed to bear out this observation in different ways. In NANKING, Bill Guttentag and Dan Surman bring to light the personal horror of the Japanese invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking, an offensive that left nearly 200, 000 people dead and thousands of women raped. For Guttentag, “When I started looking into the story, Nanking was referred to as the forgotten holocaust. But I believe that holocaust and forgotten should never be in the same sentence.” (In an interesting turn of events, Mark Schilling [] reports in Variety that Japanese filmmaker Satoru Mizushima has announced plan to make a documentary to “correcting what he describes as the “myth” of the Nanking Massacre. Clearly among those he feels propogates the is Sundance doc NANKING.)

For Steven Okazaki, whose documentary WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN revisits the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the subject matter was well covered, but never from the point of the view of the people who suffered the most. The need for the documentary came to Okazaki over 20 years ago when he was trying to help his sister write a school report by attending a atomic-bomb film series at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, CA. “Of the ten documentaries,” remembers Okazaki, “only one — a doc by a Swiss filmmaker — actually featured an Hiroshima survivor. I found it shocking. That series was in 1980, and there were thousands and thousands of survivors to be included and almost none were. I thought — so this is how history is made. We put the politicians and experts in, and we leave out the people who were actually there. At that moment, I felt such frustration that I wanted to make a film from the point of view of the people who were actually there.”


Marco William’s BANISHED tweaks the genre of historical documentary by examining not so much the historical event as the present-day reverberations of that past trauma. His focus is three (nearly all-white) communities in which African-Americans citizens were forcibly expelled at sometime in their history. How did the present day folk live in the shadow of such a cruel legacy? What did they remember, or chose to forget? In the end, Williams concluded, “in many ways my film is not a illumination of African American being victims of these atrocities.” Rather the film looks at how everyone suffers by forgetting the past.

Peter Bowen

Senior Editor, Filmmaker Magazine