If you visit a state or national park or site with historical significance, chances are you'll visit the "interpretive center," something that visitors generations ago may have simply called the "museum" or "historical center." Whereas museums collect and display a series of documents and facts, interpretive centers translate or "interpret" these documents and facts in order to tell stories.
However, one thing is always lost in translation: the emotion of the original event. So many interpretive centers try to recreate emotion through staging and effects. Historical documentaries work the same way. They aren't just simple timelines filled with facts, they are emotion-filled narratives. Ken Burns' documentaries may be the pinnacle examples of this [classics include The Brooklyn Bridge (1981) and The Civil War (1990)].
In general, that documentaries tell emotional narratives isn't a bad thing: Documentaries would be awful if they were void of emotion and weren't formed into narratives. After all, our lives are narratives filled with emotion. The problem appears when the viewer is led to believe that history can only truly be understood in light of a person's experience — in other words, when history is allowed to become subjective rather than objective.
This has some important implications on church history and especially Bible history. Bible history is objectively important. Jesus died on the cross objectively. How someone feels about that event is irrelevant to its overall consequences (of course, by subjectively denying its relevance, that person cuts off the benefits of the cross to themselves).
The documentary I am currently producing is a film about the reorganization of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the centennial of which is coming up in June of 2018. As I worked on the pre-production phase especially, I had to answer one significantly important question. I hope my thoughts on this can be of benefit to others.
1. Find your point of view
I said earlier that it's a problem for objective church history when it is viewed as understandable only through someone's subjective experience. History is objective — facts don't change. Yet, part of that history is the personal experience of the people who lived it. An event that was good for one person or group was very likely bad for another. But just because two groups experienced different things, doesn't mean we can't look into history and see objectively what happened.
In the case of the ELS Centennial documentary, since we're telling 100+ years of history, the point of view will obviously be that of the ELS as a whole.
2. Find your perspective
A perspective is similar to a point of view, but more focused keeping in mind the intended audience. A perspective allows us to create an interesting narrative of historical facts.
In covering 100+ years of history, there are many directions you can go to tell the history. What factors impact the modern audience the most? What perspective should we take on the facts?
Should we take an ethnic perspective? Perhaps how the largely Norwegian ancestry of the ELS affected the history of the Synod? That could make an interesting story since the largest ethnic group of Lutherans in the CELC in America is of German ancestry. But is it really relevant?
Should we take a missions/growth perspective? Perhaps how the ELS expanded from just over a dozen pastors and churches in 1918 to well over a hundred in the same amount of time? It would be easy simply to note the great things the church has accomplished since its reorganization. But is that who we are as a church body? What about the rather mundane things that have been done throughout the years and the many faithful people who simply lived their vocations?
Or should we take a theological perspective? Some might view this as the "boring" perspective, with ideas that would simply "go over the heads" of many people. And yet, theology is the one thing we have in common with the founders of the synod. Theology is relevant. This perspective actually allows us to bring some other perspectives into it; the theology of early Norwegians is ours, by virtue of their sacrifice and our inheritance. Our greatest accomplishment as a church body is our heritage of faith.
3. Find the story
As narratives, documentaries need to have the same elements as traditional stories. Stories have a structure which includes characters (protagonists and antagonists), conflict, and resolution. Documentaries spanning a long period of time may not have characters in the traditional sense. The protagonist in the case of our documentary is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod at large.
The overarching conflict in our documentary is the ever-present temptation to forsake Biblical truth for outward blessings of unity, growth, and outreach.
The resolution (spoiler alert!) is that the Synod over 100 years has been able, with God's help, to hold firm to biblical truth and the confession on which it was founded — though not without struggle.
4. Focus on snapshots in history
The goal of our film is for it to be shown in all of our churches next summer during a worship service. As such, it has to be very short, like 20 minutes short. (By the way, I'm still trying to figure out how to tell 100 years of history in 20 minutes).
We obviously can't cover everything, so we must focus on "snapshots:" Certain "scenes" throughout our history that illustrate the struggle over biblical confession.
5. Get (re)creativeFocusing on snapshots brings up another difficulty: we don't have media from some of these scenes. Pictures of church gatherings were few and far between 100 years ago. Even the pictures we do have are most often either headshots of pastors or group photos of a couple dozen people at a church service or convention. Not impossible to work from to show conflict, but not great either.
For us, there was one important scene in our Synod's history that tops the rest: the actual reorganization. For those unfamiliar with the history of the ELS, the Norwegian Synod was actually founded in 1853. It was reorganized in 1918 when the large majority chose to unite with other church bodies without true biblical unity (this church body eventually became the ELCA). Only a handful of people were left to reorganize the Synod on the old confession.
The circumstances surrounding this event are quite interesting. The small group deciding to reorganize had set their meeting date and location to be the middle of June in Lime Creek, Iowa. However, three weeks before, because of fear of national loyalties during World War I, the governor of Iowa issued "The Babel Proclamation" which forbade the use of any foreign language during public meetings in the state. This was a problem because many in the church spoke primarily Norwegian. So because the Lime Creek church building was located one mile south of the Minnesota state line, the entire assembly hiked one mile north to cross the state line to hold their discussions in the Norwegian Language. Their services, including a communion service, were held at the Lime Creek Church in English.
Since we don't have any photos of this event, we chose to recreate it at the original location. The pictures accompanying this presentation illustrate this process.
For the shoot, we had to do a number of things with the help of the current members of the congregation:
- Return the sanctuary, as much as possible, to its 1918 state. This meant removing flags (besides the American flag looking different today, the flag wasn't introduced in churches until World War II due to another period of fear over national loyalties), removing speakers, hiding an electronic organ, removing banners, relocating the baptismal font to the center aisle, lighting a vintage kerosene chandelier, and finally segregating men and women on either side of the church.
- Find an exterior location that could serve as the meeting place. Logistically, using the original site wasn't an option, and being a low-budget documentary, renting a large period canvas tent was out of the question. We chose to forego the tent and use an area on the northeast side of the church property.
- Locate props. A couple of old Norwegian Bibles and Catechisms help to add some authenticity to our scenes.
We chose to film our walking shots and a few others in slow motion, adding a sense of drama to the scene.
6. Make it personal
Despite being about the synod at large, the ELS is a synod made up of individuals. In this way the story of the ELS is very personal. There have been many men and women over its history to undergo significant hardship. Our film focuses on a few of them. And yet the greatest theologian in our history is no more important part of the synod than the youngest infant today.
The goal of our documentary was to show the unchanging theological heritage of the Synod. But technically, the synod as such can't believe. A synod can't have faith. Only individuals can have faith. Only individuals can pass on the faith. In this way the documentary will challenge viewers to emulate the example of those who came before, and to hold to the truth of God's Word.
Return to original language with "show original" button at top left.