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Trajectories of Memory: Documentary Film and the Transmission of Testimony

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The author argues that in the burgeoning new literature about social memory anthropologists have not yet contributed all that they might. In particular, little has been written from an anthropological point of view about memory and film. The article seeks to examine the possible roles of documentary film in memory transmission. During the twentieth century, film and video became increasingly important vehicles of memory, while the digital revolution has made video such a pervasive medium in the new century that it will become more and more vital as a source of historical evidence and reflection. While the evidence presented by visually recorded interviews certainly requires critical evaluation, there is no reason to suppose that recorded interviews are any less reliable than texts; they may in fact offer clues that a text cannot. Some of the most interesting films of memory are the work of independent filmmakers engaged in a courageous personal quest to break officially imposed silences. The article examines the potential of film to preserve memories as trace - that is, as a form of historical evidence; as event - testifying itself being a performative act which generates its own meanings and demands a dialogical engagement with/by an audience; and as trajectory - for individual memories must be transmitted in order to become social. As they are launched into the flow of collective memory, they have a chance to endure over time, multiplying available perspectives on the past. Films of memory are thus part of the struggle against the forgetting of past injustices, and ultimately have the potential to contribute to shifts in our interpretations of history.
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Keywords: Documentary Film; Forgetting; Memory; Testimony; Trauma; Visual Anthropology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2007

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