Ancient world documentaries

Hobden, Fiona (2017). Ancient world documentaries. In: Pomeroy, Arthur ed. A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 491–514.



The purpose of this chapter is to trace the conventions of ancient world documentaries, to identify what they show and what they say. It is through this combination that documentaries "address" their public, generating ideas and meaning (Corner 1995), or in the present case knowledge and understanding of antiquity. In this endeavor, the oft-quoted description by John Grierson (1933: 8) of documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality" is helpful. Here "actuality" comprises the people, places and objects captured on film. Each documentary proposition about antiquity is crafted out of the raw materials of today. Yet, some of these raw materials have their origins in the ancient world: archaeological sites that were occupied more than 1500 years ago, and objects that were part of the lived enivronment of ancient Greeks and Romans. The continued presence of the "ancient"within the "modern" affords special opportunities for the creative treatment of ancient actualities. While Grierson's formulation points to the fabricated character of documentary "realities," ancient world content pushes this fabrication in distinctive directions. Thus, many techniques - voiceover narration, presenter address, expert witness interviews, on-location shooting, drama reconstruction - are familiar across the genre. However, the images that accompany narration (ancient artifacts), the chosen locations (frequently archaeological) and the realization of the drama (in epic film style) are all defined by the content. On their account, ancient world documentaries possess a particular shape and color. Tracing the conventions of ancient world documentaries involves recognizing their underpinning mode and generic affiliations, but also the possibilities attendant upon their subject matter for developing their truth claims.

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