‘Michael Palin’s New Europe’ – Comments on Palin’s approach

Having watched the first episode of “Michael Palin’s New Europe”, my lasting impression was that Palin has a lot of confidence in his viewers. In the following, I would like to explain what precisely I mean by this, why I have come to this particular conclusion and whether I think his approach pays dividends or not.

As Michael Palin travels trough the various Eastern European countries (the Balkans in the first episode), the viewer follows him from place to place and from interview to interview. This means that every couple of minutes (or seconds, at some points), the viewer is confronted with a new person, place and/ or story. As the minutes pass by, one begins to wonder when Palin will be so kind as to explain where this trip is going eventually, and what the purpose of it all is. Throughout the first episode at least, Palin does not offer any such explanation. Thus, he is at odds with a great many documentaries (which Jerome de Groot has called “epic” documentaries1 ). Unlike ‘New Europe’, these offer the viewer plenty of interpretation, to the point where all that is shown on the screen is knitted into one comprehensive and all-encompassing narrative. Palin, on the other hand, seems to have very different ideas about storytelling. Instead of using voice-over or lecturing his audience, he mostly limits himself to interviewing people, letting them tell their stories rather than he telling his (or theirs). In other words, Palin chooses complexity over simplicity, variety over coherence. As has been shown by De Groot, most historians have been suspicious of the “superficiality” of television, that is to say they do not believe that this medium is able to present complex realities adequately2.

. Although this might be interpreting a lot into Palin’s approach, one could nonetheless say that he is rather more postmodern in his way of proceeding. Instead of explaining ‘the past’, which does not exist as such in the postmodern sense, he prefers to show different representations of the past side by side.((De Groot, Consuming History, p. 153)) Several remarks need to be made here. First of all, the so-called postmodern ‘turn’ mentioned by De Groot has greatly affected historiography, that is to say many of today’s historians who criticise television would probably agree that text (being their principal medium) cannot render ‘the past’ in the postmodern sense either. Secondly, Palin’s lack of voice-over lecturing does not mean that his series is devoid of personal interpretations. By interviewing one person rather than another, by cutting and linking those interviews, but also by simply adding music to some scenes (and so forth), he does in fact give his own personal view, just like any other director or producer.

One of the key differences between the director/ presenter Michael Palin and the historians mentioned by De Groot, then, is the confidence Palin seems to have in television’s aptitude (as a medium) to present complexity, but also in the viewer’s ability to deal with that intricacy.((De Groot, Consuming History, p. 151-152.)) Only at the end of the episode does Palin ask what links himself as a Western European to the people he chooses to present in his work, thus offering at least a guideline for reflecting upon what he has confronted the viewer with. I can of course only speak for myself, but at least for me this worked tremendously well. The interviews with young men (not that much older than me) who have experienced war in their lifetime, but also shorter instances like the sheep sacrifice in Albania, had led me to some sort of comparison between my life and that of the people on screen. However, I only really became aware of this after Palin had put forward his questions at the end. In hindsight, I think that his choice to not offer his own interpretations at every corner has helped in what I now believe to be his main goal: to push his mostly Western European audience into familiarising themselves with and  into alienating themselves from the people in the series, ultimately questioning whether, how and why we live in one Europe. However, it could also be that I have misinterpreted Palin’s intentions and that he wanted his viewers to draw a different conclusion. This being said, his program has led me to asking myself some interesting new questions and to refining some older ones. Watching it has therefore definitely been worthwhile, although at first, I perceived the lack of interpretation offered by Palin to be taxing. I could therefore understand perfectly well if another person disliked Palin’s ‘New Europe’ for those reasons and preferred a more classical “epic” documentary-type of approach3.

Finally then, I would like to comment on the type of sources that Palin bases his documentary on. He rarely uses original historical footage, although the subject of the Balkan wars would certainly lend itself to that kind of presentation. In doing so, he voluntarily distances himself from ‘classical’ documentaries, which rely heavily on original footage or even on re-enacted scenes. Instead, Palin and his team go down the harder (and certainly more expensive) path of filming almost every bit of footage themselves, mostly in the form of interviews. Apart from these oral-history type of sources, he also relies heavily on architecture, landscape, but also on cultural practices such as dancing, making music or culinary traditions. This differentiates him not only from most other directors and producers, but also from many historians, who prefer textual sources and who often already see original video footage as a ‘new’, non-classical type of source. Watching this documentary and seeing how much it can teach viewers about the past, I would therefore think that it could serve as ‘food for thought’ for historians to reflect on how they can use various ‘new’ types of sources in their own work, even when in the end they publish texts rather than documentaries.

  1. Jerome de Groot, Consuming History. Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture,

    p. 154. []

  2. De Groot, Consuming History, p. 151-152 []
  3. See footnote 1 []

Rezension: Dokumentarfilm “New Europe” (von: Michael Palin, 2007)

In der Folge wird sich auseinandergesetzt mit der Doku “New Europe”, die den 6- monatigen Reiseverlauf des britischen Schauspielers und Journalisten Michael Palin in Osteuropa wiedergibt und 2007 für BBC 1 produziert wurde. Im ersten Teil des Filmes, besuchte er die Länder Slowenien, Kroatien, Bosnien, Serbien und Albanien. Nach eigener Angabe, ging es ihm bei dieser Reise darum, mit den osteuropäischen Vorurteilen von Seiten Westeuropas zu brechen und zu zeigen, dass diese Länder nicht so anders sind wie westeuropäische Länder und so das Konzept von „Uns“ und „Ihnen“ abgeschafft werden muss. Er wünscht sich ein gemeinsames, vereinigtes Europa und wollte mit diesem Film „New Europe“, wie er Osteuropa bezeichnet, die Möglichkeit geben für sich selbst zu sprechen und sich darzustellen.[1]

Im Hinblick auf dieses Medium, muss man wissen, dass Dokumentarfilme nicht die Wahrheit zeigen, sondern nur Konstrukte der Vergangenheit, die der Zuschauer akzeptieren oder ablehnen kann, und die stets unvollständig sind, sind.[2] Michael Palin führt den Zuschauer durch diese Doku, die über Krieg und Frieden handelt. Es gibt keine  voice-over in diesem Film, sondern Michael Palin führt Interviews mit den Leuten, die er auf seiner Reise trifft, und lässt sie frei reden. Bei diesen Leuten, handelt es sich um gewöhnliche Personen, die aus den unterschiedlichen Ländern kommen. So gibt es also in diesem Film keine Meistererzählung. Er verwendet als historische Quellen: Videos (aber nur selten), die Architektur (wie z.B. Gebäude, Brücken, Orte), die Landschaft, die Kultur (z.B. die Religion, Discos, Tanzen), aber auch die Speisen und die Getränke, die mündlichen Erzählungen, die Musik (einerseits als Quelle, dient aber auch als Hintergrundmusik, um die Geschichte emotionaler zu machen). Was einem auffällt, wenn man sich diesen Film anschaut ist, dass Palin nicht wie ein Historiker, aber auch nicht wie ein Journalist agiert, da er die Fakten nicht interpretiert und erklärt und alles, was er erfährt, uns direkt darlegt, so dass es an den Zuschauern liegt, das Gehörte  und das Gesehene zu interpretieren. Er legt eine ethnographische Herangehensweise an den Tag, d.h. er ist kein distanzierter Beobachter, sondern ein teilnehmender Beobachter, der an diesem Leben in anderen Ländern teilnimmt, indem er z.B. mit diesen Personen, die er kennenlernt, zusammen isst oder betet. Er fügt sich also in die verschiedenen Gesellschaften, denen er begegnet, ein und profitiert von deren Gastfreundschaft ihm gegenüber. Durch diese Herangehensweise bekommt er einen anderen Einblick in das osteuropäische Leben und erfährt Sachen, die in er aus einer distanzierten Betrachtung, nicht erfahren hätte,  z.B. da das Teilen von Erinnerungen und Ideen eine soziale Tätigkeit ist, die normalerweise am Tisch stattfindet, erfährt Palin beim Essen mehr als wenn das Interview auf neutralem Boden stattgefunden hätte. Nach de Groot ist Empathie gegenüber den dargestellten Personen auch ein wichtiger Faktor innerhalb einer Doku, da so ein größeres Publikum angezogen werden kann.[3] Diese Idee findet man auch in diesem Film wieder, so zeigt Palin dem Zuschauer gewöhnliche Menschen, die aus ihren Erfahrungen erzählen und mit denen man sich identifizieren kann. So ist es möglich eine Verbindung zwischen dem Zuschauer und der Vergangenheit herzustellen.

 

[1] PALIN, Michael, Introduction. Welcome to New Europe (09/2007), in: New Europe. Palin’s travels, URL: http://palinstravels.co.uk/static-207-15 (Stand: 09/11/2014).

[2] DE GROOT, Jerome, Consuming History. Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture, London / New York 2009, S. 149.

[3] DE GROOT, Consuming, S. 159.

Recension critique de l’épisode « War and Peace » de « Michael Palin’s New Europe »

 

Michael Palin, ancien membre du groupe anglais Monty Phyton, invite le spectateur à découvrir l’Europe de l’Est. Dans sept séries, publiées en 2007 par BBC, Michael Palin explore et découvre 20 « nouveaux » pays, qui étaient durant un demi-siècle sous l’influence de l’Union Soviétique.[1]

 

Dans le premier épisode, Palin voyage les pays de l’Ex-Yougoslavie ainsi que l’Albanie et montre au spectateur une région qui est nouveaux pour lui à cause du rideau de fer qui séparait l’Europe de l’Est de l’Ouest. C’est une nouvelle Europe pour l’auteur, comme le titre l’indique et c’est aussi l’auteur qui, au centre de l’action, raconte son histoire et ses aventures de cette nouvelle Europe.

 

Contrairement à d’autres films documentaires où une voix nous raconte l’histoire, cette série met au centre Palin qui explore et découvre une nouvelle région. C’est lui qui parle aux gens, qui mange et fête avec la population et c’est lui qui dirige le spectateur en quelque sorte, donnant l’impression que l’auteur veut nous montrer ses impressions du vécu.

 

Palin raconte l’histoire des différents pays par ses interactions et ses discussions avec différentes personnes. Le spectateur à l’impression, que l’auteur choisi ces personnes un peu au hasard en les rencontrant dans la rue. Ceci est tout à fait le contraire d’autres documentaires qui ne parlent qu’avec des spécialistes. C’est plutôt un voyage ethnographique qu’une visite de pays de l’Europe de l’Est.

 

Il utilise différentes formes pour raconter l’histoire ; le paysage, les fêtes, la nourriture, la religion, la musique, des témoignages oraux, l’architecture, les monuments, sont toutes des différents éléments de l’histoire et donne au spectateur envie de participer à cette exploration de l’Europe de l’Est. Une grande différence avec d’autres documentaires est que Palin, n’utilise que très peu de sources d’archives. Ici, il raconte l’histoire à l’aide de la culture locale de chaque pays.

 

En tout, c’est un premier épisode qui nous a donné envie de regarder encore les 6 derniers de cette série intéressante.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Palin’s_New_Europe

Review of documentary “Michael Palin’s New Europe”

After his past leading role in the comic group Monty Python actor Michael Palin made several series of travel documentaries journeying all over the world. The series Michael Palin’s New Europe aims at presenting to the British (and maybe all Western European) audience the countries of the ex Soviet bloc which were till 1989 separated by the Iron Curtain and is composed of seven episodes. At the very beginning of the first episode titled War and Peace Palin calls Eastern Europe “the other half of my continent”, the one hidden by the communist regime in the Eastern bloc. The documentary follows a sort of geographic/itinerary narrative showing places and interviewing citizens of the filmed countries.

The documentary is a mixture of ethnography, history, sociology, geography and a bit of tourism all at once. Palin is the tourist and the presenter of the documentary trying to describe all the different elements in a neutral way. However the other protagonists of Palin’s journey are the people encountered all along the road who tell to him and to the audience the story of their country, their perception or their memories of the recent past, especially concerning conflict and the communist and their effects on the landscape, the monuments and on the minds of those who have seen and lived through them. Very important is the fact that the persons interviewed speak and answer the questions in English, no simultaneous translation or subtitles so to avoid even that interpretation of their words and message and they can communicate directly to the audience even if they are not expressing themselves in their mother tongue.

The series aims to discover and make the audience discover new realities and new cultures but it also has an educational purpose. The narrative discourse follows a sociologic approach touching very slightly politics only evoked by the persons interviewed not by Palin. The attempt to reach objectivity is quite hard since the documentary relates about a subjective journey, and sometimes a journey through subjective histories; the title of the series itself is Michael Palin’s New Europe. Quite original for a documentary is the attitude or the role of the presenter who does not hover over the subject with the authority of the speaker or of the specialist interpreting what he sees and exposing what he knows. Instead he tries to put himself at the same level to enter their world and understand it from the inside by sharing their food, drinks and company. The audience is not really involved in the narrative and remains a passive viewer.

For the historical parts of the documentary Palin does neither uses reenactment of history nor a simple storytelling of the events but lets the witness of those events speak, which is a gathering of primary sources and oral history. The documentary does not really create or requires empathy from the audience even during the description of tragic events.

Palin manages to mitigate the seriousness of strictly scientific research into an entertaining documentary and though it is meant for the wider public it respect some academic criteria as objectivity.

 

 

Sources:

Palin, Michel, New Europe, TV documentary produces by the BBC, 2007, first broadcast 16 September 2007.

De Groot, Jerome, Consuming History, historians and heritage in the contemporary popular culture, Routledge: New York, 2009, pp. 149-180.

http://palinstravels.co.uk/book-4351 (accessed on 08/11/2014)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007zmt3 (accessed on 08/11/2014)

Rezension – Michael Palin’s New Europe

Bei diesem Artikel handelt es sich um einen Bericht über die erste Folge „War and Peace“ der 7-teiligen TV-Serie Michael Palin’s New Europe. Die Serie wurde im Jahr 2007 auf dem Sender BBC ausgestrahlt.

Es handelt sich dabei um eine Reise Dokumentation die Michael Palin, eher bekannt als Mitglied der Comedy Gruppe Monty Python, auf seiner Reise durch Ost Europa begleitet.

Sein erstes Reiseziel sind die 6 kleinen Länder des ehemaligen Jugoslawiens: Kroatien, Slowenien, Bosnien und Herzegowina, Serbien und Albanien. Am Anfang der Folge sagt Palin er möchte die neuen EU Mitgliedsstaaten besuchen die einst durch den „Eisernen Vorhang“ von West Europa getrennt waren. Die Dokumentation will die Situation der Länder, nach dem Bruch Jugoslawiens und der Sowjetunion, zeigen. Palin lässt sich das jeweilige Land von einem Einheimischen zeigen wobei er diesen gleichzeitig interviewt. Der Schwerpunkt der Dokumentation liegt vor allem in den Eindrücken und Meinungen der Einheimischen. Wie haben sie den Kommunismus und den Krieg erlebt? Und was für Folgen haben diese auf die heutige Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft?

Die Dokumentation legt ihren Schwerpunkt auf die Tatsache, dass die Vergangenheit einen Einfluss auf die Gegenwahrt hat. Wie der Restaurant Besitzer in Kroatien der seine Uhren auf 3:04 gesetzt hat oder ein anderer Restaurant Besitzer der über den Kommunismus sagt „ er war sehr begrenzt“, Patriotismus war damals nicht möglich. So entsteht zum Beispiel ein Bild „Kommunismus vs. Modernes Kroatien“.

Während der ein-stündigen Folge benutzt die Dokumentation Quellen, wie Musik, Architektur, Essen, Trinken, Bilder und Filme, um den Zuschauern ein Bild der jeweiligen Kultur zu geben. Historische Informationen und Fakten über die Länder und den Krieg stehen eher im Hintergrund. In der ganzen Folge greift Palin nur zweimal auf Archivquellen zurück, was diese Dokumentation von anderen unterscheidet.

Palin macht sich vor allem dem « oral testimony » zu nutzen und spielt dabei eher eine passive Rolle. Palin weiß die richtigen Fragen zu stellen danach braucht er sich nur noch zurückzulehnen und lässt die Personen ihre Geschichten und Anekdoten erzählen. Diese Vorgehensweise erlaubt es dem Zuschauer eine persönliche Sichtweise der Situation im Krieg zu bekommen. In Sarajevo zum Beispiel trinkt er „boza“ mit seinem Reiseführer und fragt ihn ob er es „frustrierend“ gefunden hat in einer vom Krieg zerrütteten Stadt gelebt zu haben. Dieser antwortet ihm „I understand you, being British, using the mild words like ‘frustrated’. It was more than outrageous.“

Anders als in den meisten TV Dokumentationen versucht der « Erzähler » hier Michael Palin nicht « unsere » Geschichte zu erzählen[1] sondern einen Teil der Europäische Geschichte mit der sich West Europa noch nicht auseinandersetzt hat. Hier wird der Versuch unternommen das neue Bild Europas zu zeigen, dem Zuschauer einen Eindruck Ost Europas zu geben. Eine Art Brücke zwischen Vergangenheit und Gegenwahrt und gleichzeitig eine Brücke zwischen Ost und West. Palin Rolle in der Folge ist eher die eines Beobachters, er lässt sich die Orte zeigen und lässt die Personen erzählen anstatt für sie zu reden.

In der Folge befinden sich keine Interpretation seitens des Erzählers und keine geschichtliche Vorgehensweise sondern eher eine ethnographische; mit Hilfe von traditionellen Gerichten, Musik und Ritten.

Die TV Serie wurde nicht nur im Fernsehen gezeigt sondern ein Buch wurde ebenfalls herausgebracht, um die Serie zu begleiten.

 

 

[1] DE GROOT Jerome: Consuming History. Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London/New York: Routledge 2009, p. 156.

Review of “Michael Palin’s New Europe”

Note: This review is based on the first episode of the TV series, entitled “War and Peace”.

Michael Palin may be best known for his involvement in Monty Python, but he also directed a number of documentary TV series. His New Europe is a more recent addition, produced in 2007 for the BBC.

The director-narrator as an explorer

What distinguishes Michael Palin’s New Europe from his other documentary work, however, is the use of the possessive form in the title. This suggests that the considerations and accounts shown are tightly linked to Michael Palin’s personal views and experiences. The director is put at the center, like Michael Moore did it in his famous documentary Roger & Me (1989).

Indeed, Palin invites the viewer to accompany him on his travel through the ex-Yugoslavian countries and Albania. Hence, it is not surprising that the opening of his narration begins with a very personal consideration:

Throughout most of my lifetime, an iron curtain has divided Eastern Europe from the West, preventing me from really getting to know it.

Not only would the older generation agree with Palin (creating an empathic bond between director and viewers), but Palin, who clearly speaks as a Western European, now takes the opportunity to close this gap of knowledge, by exploring “the other half” of ‘his’ continent. During this introduction, the director presents himself as a wanderer with all the elements that are linked to this trope: a vast landscape, mountains, Palin’s walking stick (later on, we’ll see him holding a map, riding a bike, traveling by train, etc.). With these first images of the first episode, the stage is set for what will come next.

As in most (TV) documentaries (except the Reality History format1), the viewer takes a passive stance. What is shown and said is not part of the viewer’s decision. It is the director who chooses. Yet, contrary to the classic historical documentaries, the narrator is known – Michael Palin – and does not hide his subjective point of view. This is a whole different approach than that of other documentaries using the voice of God (which is still a dominating feature of documentaries)2. Palin, as director-narrator, decides where to travel: a map superimposed on the Slovenian landscape shows us the itinerary of the filmmaker. It is also him who chooses his dialogue partners. He acts in place of the (Western European) viewer and constantly uses the first person, giving the documentary a form of diary, in this case a travel diary. New Europe could be considered what documentary theorist Bill Nichols formulates as “I speak about them to you”.3

The aspect of travel, and even exploration – as Eastern Europe is an unknown territory to Palin and Albania described as a “mysterious land” – may remind of the themes of the early years of documentary cinema, which the film historian Erik Barnouw put under the term “Explorer”, including movies like Nanook of the North (1922) by Robert Flaherty.4

A jigsaw puzzle of the new Europe

A closer look at the opening credits gives another interesting insight on the approach of the TV-series. The spectator sees a number of puzzle pieces crossing the screen, slowly filling the gaps on a map and finally giving an entire vision of Eastern Europe. This might suggest that the different experiences of Michael Palin, and the various encounters with witnesses and inhabitants, should give – in the end – a complete picture of Eastern Europe. It is up to the spectator to put the different pieces together into a coherent and complete vision of this part of Europe. New Europe therefore gives, through the experiences of Palin, a fragmented account, bound together by Palin himself, his itinerary and the theme of the episode. If the history is not chronologically presented, the story – i.e. Palin’s travel – is.

Another question arises: what makes Eastern Europe ‘new’, as suggested in the title? It is undeniably true that after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the European map has been reshaped. In the opening scenes, Palin announces an

exploration of the people, the places, the mood and the spirit that is transforming old lands into a new Europe.

A definition of this “new” is nonetheless missing and the use of it implicitly refers to the existence of an ‘old’ Europe. Considering Palin’s Western view, the ‘old’ Europe would be the West, which took part in the European construction process much longer than ex-Yugoslavian countries. At the same time, the expression alludes to the rapid changes of the East, and the break with its past with the creation of new societies (shaped after Western models).

A historical documentary?

As I explained above, Palin’s view is purely subjective and there is no chronological narration of historical events. Nevertheless, it is not a coincidence that the director begins his travel in Croatia. Split is presented as the place where

the idea of East and West Europe began […]. It was Diocletian who took the momentous decision to divide the Roman Empire in two.

By saying this, Palin creates a historical continuity: Europe has been divided since Antiquity. This division was part of the continent’s history, maybe even of its destiny.

This comment brings us to another important question: how much history can be found in New Europe? The past is retold through the lens of the present: Palin does barely use any archival sources from the past. As a director, he knows how to engage with people: during discussions, he eats and drinks with his interview partners. They tell him mostly about their own experiences of the communist regime and the Balkan wars. This is Palin’s way of doing oral history. However, it is not his only approach, as he creates a link to the past via the architecture (Roman vestiges in Split), monuments or landscapes still bearing scars of past wars (landmines in the countryside of Sarajevo). Archival footage is only used at two occasions, contrary to classic historical documentaries that constantly rely on it. The importance of landscapes in New Europe is visually emphasized by the different puzzle pieces in the opening credits, whose surfaces are shaped like the landscapes of the respective regions.

Palin uses sources of the present to tell about the past. New Europe is not a pure historical documentary, however. It is also an account of traditions and gastronomy, of savoir-vivre and social events. Those elements are typical for an ethnographical approach. Fieldwork is an important aspect of ethnography,5 and that corresponds exactly to what Palin is doing. He either confides himself to the role of a passive observer, for instance when he listens to the street musician in Dubrovnik, or becomes a participant observer, e.g. at a party in Albania after the sacrifice of a sheep.

For Palin, the countries he travels through are thoroughly different. At the end of his stay in Albania, the director states:

I have to remind myself that not only am I still in Europe, but have a lot further east to go yet.

This implies that Palin will travel through countries that are even more distinctive. An ethnographer couldn’t be any more satisfied by this prospect.

References

1 DE GROOT Jerome: Consuming History. Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London/New York: Routledge 2009, p. 165.

2 NICHOLS Bill: Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2010, p. 60.

3 ibid., p. 59.

4 BARNOUW Eric: Documentary, A History of the non-fiction film. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993.

5 SANJEK Roger: Ethnography; in: BARNARD Alan/SPENCER Nathan (Ed.): The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London/New York: Routledge 2010, p. 243.