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.
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)