Negotiating Oral History, Documentary, and Journalism

I realize I haven’t been blogging on this site regularly for a while, and this post is going to venture into far more pointy-headed territory than normal. But as I’m moving toward transforming the feature length documentary into a book and interactive film grounded in oral history research, I think its important to share my thoughts and process.

This post was inspired by a series of conversations, where it became increasingly clear that I was working in an area that wasn’t entirely transparent to the narrators who are sharing their stories with me. I’m hoping this will help clarify things for them, and for me.


In June of this year, the Oral History Society held its annual conference in Belfast. The theme? Dangerous oral histories. The conference organizers were concerned with physical dangers and risks when gathering and sharing oral narratives, but also about the fragile emotional ground for both oral historians and interview participants, or narrators, when conduction oral history interviews and research.

That ground becomes even more fragile when working at the intersection of oral history and documentary.

I think it’s incredibly important to recognize that the feature length film Pin Up! The Movie, while based in oral narratives, is still a documentary at its heart. By this I mean it has a structured narrative, with a three act structure (beginning, middle, and end). In the film I follow two sets of women involved in pin up culture. A group in Colorado was competing to win the pin up contest at the 1940s Ball in Denver. The second group was in California, where I was following a new model to her first professional pin up shoot and publication with an established photographer.

Both “stories” were contrived in a way. The Ball (and its contest) was one of the first things I shot for the film. In other words, I knew how that story was going to end before I really began. For the pin up shoot, the photographer held a casting call where women learned pin up hair and makeup techniques. She and I consulted with who should be “cast” for the final shoot after looking at her proofs from the day. While I contributed who would be a good “talker” (based on quick interviews with the women) and made suggestions, she had the final say.

But because it was a documentary, I also took control of the story shaping in the editing suite. The people participating had little say, and only saw the assembled film once it was completed. I tried to be fair, but I was also the “auteur.”

Mitzi (left) with some of the pin ups she’s shot with (and who are in the film) on the red carpet: Ashleeta, Bang Bang Von Loola, Miss Emilie, Leslye Rox, Miss Rockwell De Vil and Sydney Ralston (with slurpee).

But during this process, I struggled. The project, initially conceived of as a stand alone documentary and website, eventually seemed to morph into a more interactive, online entity. And as such, my own approach would change. The interactive film didn’t need a traditional story line — by nature it was non-linear with no clear beginning, middle, or end. Users could navigate as they saw fit. The individual could have more control of her story.

In other words, the interactive film began to look a whole lot more like an oral history project.

Oral history, in the words of Alessandro Portelli, is “history telling.” By that he means organizing what had been told in the past, perhaps to family and friends, into a coherent narrative. It is also, as Ron Grele notes, a “shared authority” between the narrator and the oral historian, with each having equal weight as to the interpretation of historical events. As an oral historian I cannot discount the theories of individuals about their lives.

I also am tasked with inserting the work into the public sphere. Oral histories do little to advance “history from below” by sitting in an archive. It’s important for the public to hear the interviews with individuals in their own voices.

The process looks very different than a documentary film, in that narrators are given copies of the interview transcripts (and often the interviews themselves) which they can edit and use as they see fit. This is their individual life story, after all. It’s important to make sure the story is told accurately and allow them to maintain copyright of that story.

While the journalist in me (I’ve spent two decades in the field) worried about interviewees attempting to retract some or all of their interview in order to sanitize history, the reality is that the editing usually is relatively minor stuff, like fixing a date that is incorrect, or correcting spoken grammar to written norms. When someone wanted to remove an important anecdote, I would explain to them why the anecdote was important from a scholarly perspective. Only once has a person insisted a portion of her story be removed, and that was only because she had been the victim of identity theft and feared the culprit could find her again. Narrators can withdraw from participation at any time.

Oral history is also a profoundly feminist activity. And by feminist, I mean feminism that considers a variety of perspectives and experiences and doesn’t privilege one over the other (I’m personally working from the fourth wave perspective). I need to find what is missing in a given story and bring people in to help fill that hole. My role as an oral historian isn’t to make judgements, or to say that one person is right or another wrong. Instead, my role is to find patterns and themes, and attempt to understand a community holistically.

For this particular project, that meant trying to find what was missing. The feature film featured few people from out of the United States, and while it had a strong representation of people of color, it still wasn’t a satisfactory number to me. I knew there were transsexual pin ups, but I had none represented in the traditional documentary.

I worked hard to remedy that in the interactive project for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I strongly believe that seeing diversity in media projects helps to increase receptivity to diversity in the “real” world. Second, the experiences of pin ups in Taipei or Norway may be radically different from those in Southern California. Ditto pin ups from marginalized communities. I paid special attention to making sure that the project wasn’t just made up of white women from Western capitalist societies. It’s not tokenism, but rather making sure that all aspects of the culture are there. A variety of perspectives means my analysis and work can be richer and more complete.

A former professor once told me that you keep doing interviews in a project until you stop hearing something new. I took that approach into this project (and am still interviewing because I’m still hearing “new” stuff).

Photo by Michael Dooley

What was weird in this situation is that it started as a film about a subculture; a subculture with an active social media presence. In the filmmaking process I became involved with the (mostly online) community in ways that I hadn’t in other projects. Documentary and oral history work is always intimate. I personally don’t know how scholars or filmmakers avoid personal connections and friendships with the people they’re collaborating with. But for this project it became even more intense, likely because these encounters were morphing into my own online presence. I’m involved with private groups on Facebook, and regularly text or message people who are part of the project about non-project related things.

In other words, I felt like many of the women I met were becoming friends.

Hence the danger. I’m treading on treacherous ground.

The back end of the interactive documentary.

My producer and I presented on the interactive documentary project at the International Oral History Association in Finland this past June. We talked about the ways the online documentary offered collaborative potential for oral historians seeking to put their work in the public sphere. Full interviews can go on a website, and the process offers numerous ways to edit and contextualize in a more user-friendly format than a bricks and mortar archive or even a book.

Afterwards, one of the audience members asked me, “Are you sharing the interviews and transcripts with the narrators?” I paused for a moment, but almost immediately realized the answer had to be “yes.” Again, this isn’t so that they can change their stories and sanitize their lives, but rather so that they can share in the storytelling process.

Does that mean as a scholar I’m going to sit back and pretend I don’t have opinions or observations? Of course not! I’ve already heard a variety of things that complicate my analysis and work: inconsistencies between interviews and public actions, ideological blind spots, or approaches that I personally think are unrealistic. My job as a scholar isn’t to judge, but to tease out patterns (do certain sub-demographics think a certain way, even among people with the best intentions) and offer context and analysis when looking at the interviews as a whole. If there are problems, even among the best intentioned, I will point those out.

And I’m also going to self-critically look at my own role in this whole process. I’ve already made mistakes and will likely make more. Discounting them would do my narrators a disservice.

It’s the least I can do for this culture that has so willingly shared so much with me.



One thought on “Negotiating Oral History, Documentary, and Journalism

  1. The documentary, book and the oral history sound absolutely amazing and fascinating and I love that you are so passionate about these projects, this post was such an interesting read! I would love to be able to review these projects if/when they are available. 🙂 Well done and keep up the amazing work!

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