Through a Lens, Starkly

To hear American television networks talk about documentaries -- well, there's a self-canceling sentence. If they did talk about documentaries, they'd say that they're like bomb threats: they clear the room. Those eye-glazing, ad-killing relics of a stodgier age might be good for awards, but they're bad for thrills and therefore bad for business. It's supposed to be axiomatic that today's twitchy audiences -- at least the folks who aren't yet drawing Social Security checks -- won't sit still long enough to let documentaries set the scene, juxtapose divergent memories, let the story unfold. People want drama, and docs aren't dramatic, right? Pass the remote.

If the networks were committed to unearthing significant truth, they'd not only feel obliged to air documentaries but would look for ways to make them watchable without dumbing them down -- as Ken Burns' best work has done on public television. In his 1990 Civil War series, for example, Burns showed that you can produce high drama using still photos, talking heads and voice-over readings from musty documents. The notion that documentaries can't be dramatic bites the dust when you look at the work compiled in Britain over the last 25 years by the journalistic team of Norma Percy and Brian Lapping. (Percy is the producer, Lapping the executive producer.) Their multipart series on, among other subjects, Watergate, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Israel and the Arabs, Northern Ireland and the Afghanistan war, have aired on the BBC, various other European, Israeli and Arab networks, and sometimes (albeit at times in truncated versions) on the Discovery Channel and PBS' Frontline. Blending actuality footage and meticulous interviews with people in positions to know, these sagas are riveting -- even when you already know that, in the end, Richard Nixon and Slobodan Milosevic will fall. Combining wide scope and devilish detail, these living histories are positively Tolstoyan in their lively sweep and attentiveness to the human scale. They forswear the ponderous. Bypassing the boilerplate "context" footage that American television often uses to affect seriousness, they start from the premise that history is both human and comprehensible.

Part of what makes these programs gripping is access. Percy and her colleagues avoid sound bites and gotchas, specializing instead in crisply edited, anecdotal interviews with the principals, who are close enough to the events to remember them vividly, far enough away from them to want to justify their actions and closely enough scrutinized by the astute filmmakers not to be able to get away with cheap self-extenuations. Few central figures turn the filmmakers down for long, so the history-makers reconstruct, often in splendid detail, the turning points when they colluded, collided or plain conferred. Sometimes we hear these principals -- Tony Blair and Wesley Clark, Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac -- recall their own dialogue.

The producers' reputation for scrupulous care attracts most of the history-makers for lengthy sit-downs. For example, their five hours on Watergate, first broadcast in 1994, stars Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, Alexander Haig, Charles Colson, Jeb Magruder, G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, Richard Helms, everybody's favorite bagman Tony Ulasewicz and the unindicted co-conspirator himself, speaking in clips from David Frost's 1977 interview. The whole sordid plot receives the most lucid exposition. The famous 18-minute gap on one of Nixon's tapes has never been more carefully -- one might even say tenderly -- explored. Daniel Schorr's narration avoids golly-gee clichés and minces no words: The Watergate break-in was "one of a series of crimes instigated by the president himself." "The newly sworn-in attorney general [Richard Kleindienst] ordered that the Watergate investigation proceed like any other case, yet he was sitting on the information that could have cracked it wide open on its first day ... . The chief law-enforcement officer of the United States was closing his eyes to the cover-up."

The Percy-Lapping team's five-hour Death of Yugoslavia series, which aired in 1995, features the presidents of all six post-Yugoslav republics, including the communist-turned-nationalist superstar and marauder in chief, Slobodan Milosevic. It incorporates astonishing government film of the leaders of the republics meeting in the defense ministry and voting to authorize the federal army to attack Croatia.

This year's four-and-a-half-hour The Fall of Milosevic series, aired on BBC 2 and in several other countries, including Serbia (three times) and the United States (on the Discovery Times channel this August and September), features the dictator again, his wife, Mira Markovic, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright ("I want Milosevic gone before I'm gone."), top Serb dissidents, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and NATO's Gen. Wesley Clark. But it also includes a teacher from Kosovo who, in 1999, shot a home video of the mutilated bodies of his family, killed by Serb special units, as well as the mother-in-law of a pregnant woman killed during an errant NATO cluster-bomb attack on the Serb city of Nis. Also in Nis, a dissident describes his audacious raid to gather evidence of Milosevic vote fraud, and the camera nimbly reconstructs the adventure. But in these documentaries, no one gets a free pass. Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commanders killed Serbs to provoke the brutal reactions that sure enough followed. A KLA commander told a Kosovo delegate to the international talks in Rambouillet, France, that he would shoot down his own delegation's plane if an agreement was signed.

You want objectivity? Percy and her collaborators are unstinting in collecting multiple accounts and making something coherent and revelatory out of them. Many characters criticize Milosevic mercilessly, but the film starkly shows Serb civilian casualties and the feelings of the bereaved. You want suspense? The Fall of Milosevic shows the regime collapsing, henchman by henchman, in 2000. Protesters fight the police with their bare hands. A construction contractor drives his bulldozer into state TV headquarters, earning 80 bullet holes in the process. As miners outside Belgrade strike, we hear from the strikers, the mine official, the police official ordered to fire on them and the victorious President Vojislav Kostunica at the police barricade. The same paramilitary commander who committed massacres in Kosovo can't bring himself to drop tear gas on a crowd of Serb protesters outside the parliament building in Belgrade.

Most of these programs are only slightly narrated, and they are refreshingly pundit-free. Every head that talks is a participant, a perpetrator or an eyewitness. There's a bit of music to punch up the proceedings, and an occasional snatch of portentous narration, but mainly it's dialogue that moves the story along.

You don't get to make too many of these extraordinary productions in a lifetime. Percy and Lapping take an average of two years apiece. They approach their subjects when memories are still fresh, then build the script from the interviews. As television goes, these productions are cheap (The Death of Yugoslavia cost a bit more than $3 million.). For news divisions, of course, they're expensive (though hours of film come in at a good bit less than a network anchor's annual salary).

As inquiring minds everywhere wonder what has possessed American policy-makers in recent months and where to go with Iraq from here, it comes as especially welcome news that Percy, Lapping and their collaborators have now embarked on Pax Americana, two hour-long programs reconstructing the decision to bring down Saddam Hussein, the maneuvers behind United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 and the question of a UN role in the postwar denouement. These should air next summer, before the presidential conventions.

Who cares? In Britain, as many as 1.3 million households watched parts of The Death of Yugoslavia. Is that a big or a small number -- it's a bit more than 5 percent -- in a country of 23.9 million households with TV? The purely market-minded would see it as failure, no doubt. And it's partly to scotch such ventures that privatizers are campaigning to loosen the BBC's subsidy (It collects an annual license tax on all TV sets.). On the other hand, opinion leaders pay attention to these shows. Many have attributed a shift in British attitudes toward intervention in Bosnia to the 1995 broadcast of The Death of Yugoslavia. Our educated classes likewise deserve more than the bland, inside-the-Beltway, he-said-she-saids of public-broadcasting "debates" and the bombast of march-of-time newsreels.

If there were indeed a "liberal media," this sort of investigation, putting the depth back in "in-depth," is one thing they would be doing regularly -- not because the deep truth of our time veers automatically leftward in its slant but because thorough investigation, wherever it leads, serves the cause of public enlightenment, and public enlightenment defeats the casual lies and quackeries that radiate from all governments. At a time when many Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the massacres of September 11 -- in January, fully half held to the easily discredited hoax-claim that at least one of the hijackers was an Iraqi -- the shallows of TV news have never been so, well, shallow. Television, take a cold bath in the depths of recent history!

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