Harold Behr

The Camera doesn’t lie – or does it?

“Things, Faces, Friends, Places,
Years and Moments half forgotten.
Laughs, Fears, Songs, Tears.
Memories are made of this.”

These evocative words, sonorously spoken to the sound of a ticking clock, announce the opening sequence of ‘Time to Remember’, a series of short documentary films which chronicle the history of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Shot entirely in black-and-white, the series is now itself part of cinematic history.

The movie camera, at first a novelty and later an indispensable part of news coverage, shows ordinary folk and prominent figures of the day in scenes of warfare, civil unrest and daily life. When I was a teenager, the series introduced me to the genre of documentary films and brought to life the history of the times which I had otherwise only known about through books and photos.

There are numerous examples of how the camera can be used for nefarious purposes. The Nazis were adept at this. One of their carefully doctored documentaries shows Jews living contentedly and engaging in creative pastimes within the confines of Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp. This was in order to impress the Red Cross. By contrast, Claude Lanzmann’s moving nine-and-a-half hour documentary on the Holocaust relies entirely on the narratives of perpetrators and survivors to give us the true picture, without any footage of the harrowing events being described.

Today’s teenagers live in a different world. When it comes to an appreciation of history, they are being inundated by a plethora of clips on social media, many of them silly, some frankly dangerous in their distortions of reality. The grooming begins in early childhood. The ease with which a digital image can be manipulated, even by tiny fingers, has made it possible to forge a false understanding of the truth which can seduce and bamboozle the most intelligent of young minds. The facile pronouncements of ‘celebrities’ on world events further fashion the views of children, not the balanced accounts of historians.

The medium of newsreel footage must perforce condense the facts, inevitably resulting in a disproportionate focus on some happenings and the screening out of others. We are at the mercy of the film makers, about whose personal views we know little. Even the dispassionately spoken commentary of my beloved “Time to Remember” series has the faint ring of propaganda to it, but it is a propaganda to which I can happily subscribe because it speaks to values which resonate with my own. In the end, all versions of history are subjective.

The distortions to which today’s youngsters are being subjected on social media, television and blockbuster movies purporting to depict real life events bode ill because they foster the illusion of knowledge. The camera may not lie, but in their choice of whom to focus on and what to train their cameras on, and in the texts and commentaries which accompany their images, those wielding the cameras certainly can and do lie.

We cannot wrench the hands of the clock back, but we can at least shape the future of social media, documentary making and movie-making by calling out lies and distortions whenever we detect them. The truth exists, waiting to emerge from the darkness. We must be ready to capture it with our own cameras before the hordes of paparazzi descend upon it.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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