I was in America Unearthed Episode 5 and will be in Episode 12 and was shocked by the power [o]f the edit button. Literally, EVERY sentence I said was out of sequence, context, and was not what I had originally said.
There are two ways to go about planning and writing a nonfiction program. The first way, and the one given in the textbooks on journalism, is to collect research, do interviews, shoot footage, and then construct the narrative based on what was learned. This involves writing the narration around the interviews, and refraining from drawing firm conclusions until all the information has been gathered. For obvious reasons, this style of writing is difficult because it means that most of the construction of the final narrative has to wait for shooting to be complete, though of course preliminary research gives producers a good idea of how the final product should turn out. It’s time-consuming, and on a tight schedule, it can be challenging to pull off.
The second way of producing a show is to write the narration first based on the producers’ own research and ideas. Then, the producer prompts the interviewees to say what they need said to fill holes in the narration and conform to the pre-written narrative. The reason this style is frowned on in the textbooks is that it introduces bias into the system, replacing genuine inquiry for a ratification of the producer’s views. Obviously, it also skews what the “experts” are saying.
The reason I suspect America Unearthed is using the second technique is that the show seems committed to hitting specific points in a prearranged narrative sequence, often regardless of whether the actual material shot supports the surrounding narrative. This indicates to me that the shows are mapped out early on, scenes are planned, and the actual content of the scenes matters less than whether the footage can be slotted into the space provided for them.
One example is Scott Wolter’s “dating” of the Brandenburg Stone to the fifteenth century in last Friday’s episode. The examination of the stone was obviously scripted as part of the master narrative (since travel and permissions needed to be arranged), but the fact that he is completely wrong about its date is left unaddressed because the script seems to have simply called for a scene of examining the rock, written and planned before it was tested, and was never revised to account for the results. Similarly, in the Roanoke episode, when the producers found themselves unable to edit Scott Dawson’s hostile interview with Wolter to conform to the surrounding narrative, they inserted a new scene, shot months later, to negate the interview’s content by having Wolter call Dawson “close-minded.” Had they written the narrative and drawn their conclusions after filming the interviews for that show, such trickery and fakery wouldn’t have been necessary. The artifacts of the editing speak volumes about how the show was assembled.
In broadcast journalism, the rule is always to write to the pictures and to the interviews to ensure that the story reflects what is reported, not what is assumed. (Also, it helps make sure that the words match the pictures to avoid audience confusion.) In filmmaking, where the producer’s or director’s view is often as important as that of the subject, the producer’s or director’s voice tends to dictate the narrative more. That doesn’t excuse misrepresentation or butchering interviews to force them to conform to a pre-existing narrative, as Joe Rose asserted was the case with his appearance on America Unearthed.
Lest it seem that I am picking on America Unearthed, Ancient Aliens suffers from the same problems. Now in its fifth season, it is increasingly obvious that the talking heads are being prompted to deliver sound bytes in support of prearranged narrative points, made quite plain last Friday when more than one talking head paraphrased unique material found in a single Live Science article that it appears they had all been handed prior to filming. Even Giorgio Tsoukalos more and more sounds like he is reading material off a teleprompter or reciting from prewritten notes rather than speaking extemporaneously. The producer’s voice is more heavily shaping what the interviewees are asked to say, and the interviewees are providing sound bytes to order.
Speaking of narrative voices and interviews, is anyone else troubled by the fact that America Unearthed has never spoken to a Native American? With the sole exception of the Mexican archaeologist interviewed in the first episode, I believe every interviewee on the show has been white. Again, with the exception of the first episode—which was designed to be about the Maya to coincide with its Maya apocalypse air date—every “mystery” the show has investigated is about how white people were responsible for American prehistory, and, in the latest episode, the show all but accused Native Americans of “really” being degenerate white people, the hybrid offspring of civilized white Welsh and primitive savages, whose “civilized” aspects, including their watercraft, were bestowed upon them by their Caucasian benefactors. Or, perhaps, it was a medieval Englishman who taught the Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) to build brick buildings. Even the Maya, it should be remembered, we considered to really be “white” people from Phoenicia or Atlantis by the nineteenth century diffusionists whose work Wolter is so interested in resuscitating.
Even Ancient Aliens has managed more diversity over the years, speaking to an actual Native American (albeit one who believes his ancestors worshiped aliens) and at least one African American (albeit a creationist).
Friday’s America Unearthed specifically accused the Mandan tribe of having been hybrid white people for a thousand years, but all we see of them is a single old painting. Did you know that the Mandan still exist (and are online!) and number among the 6,000 people now considered the Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara)? (Technically, the last full-blooded Mandan died in 1971, and those living today have ancestors from two or more of the affiliated tribes.) They’re living in North Dakota right now, but we don’t hear from them. Perhaps they have a valuable point of view about whether their culture is nothing but the corrupt castoff of Welsh colonists? Perhaps you’d also like to know that they don’t speak Welsh (and never did) but rather a Siouan language with clear affinities to other Siouan tongues.
At least Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed are in agreement on one point: Native Americans are too stupid, primitive, and savage to accomplish anything without outside help. Where they differ is that Ancient Aliens thinks white people are just as stupid. On H2, that counts as progressive.