TV UK, 28 May

History documentaries get personal.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Omagh (last night on Channel 4) is shot in the same style as writer-director Paul Greengrass’ previous docudramas The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday. This is invariably described as ‘documentary-style’, though it is not like any documentary you are likely to see on British TV.

It does resemble the vérité strain in film that eschews artifice and goes for a direct, realistic effect, but this is now more characteristic of fiction films than documentaries. Greengrass is no fool – if he’d wanted people to think his film was a documentary, he’d have employed hammy actors to make it look like a ‘dramatic reconstruction’. Instead, he used good actors who are capable of eliciting genuine sympathy from the audience. Indeed, it is the emotional truth that seems to interest Greengrass more than the particular facts of his subjects. Much of Omagh could be about any bombing anywhere, or indeed any disaster in which people have been killed.

The long opening sequence introduces us to the family at the heart of the film, and the sense of dread in the build-up to the bombing is palpable. Of course, the dread comes not from the characters themselves, who are painfully unwitting as they go about their normal business, but from our own knowledge of what is about to happen. We are invited to empathise with the victims in their innocence before their inevitable grief.

Even when politics come into the film later on, as the families meet with both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in pursuit of justice, this is really about a struggle for closure rather than examining the political context of the bombing. For all the quality of the production and the acting, the effect is frustrating, as all depth and nuance not relevant to the victims’ suffering is deliberately omitted.

It is harder to avoid the political significance of D-Day, the sixtieth anniversary of which is all over TV, but the coverage is almost as focused on personal experience as is Omagh. Channel 4 has already given us the stories of 10 ‘ordinary’ participants in Ten Days to D-Day, and the BBC follows up Wednesday’s inevitable reality doc Destination D-Day (in which 24 ‘lads’ underwent D-Day-style training), with a conventional reconstruction doc, complete with hammy acting, on the anniversary itself.

D-Day features historic figures such as Rommel and Eisenhower, as well as the obligatory ordinaries, but the focus is still very much on how people felt. Eisenhower spends the run-up to D-Day in a tent drinking whisky with an attractive female assistant, so he can’t have felt too bad, but Rommel and his staff mostly sit about listening to Götterdammerung and looking miserable.

As for the action itself – well of course BBC history can’t compete with Saving Private Ryan, but the real problem is that even the appearance in the film of veterans from both sides seems more a tribute to Steven Spielberg than an effort to understand the historical reality of their stories.

The preponderance of documentary as storytelling is underlined by One Day of War, which was on BBC2 up against Omagh. While this film about 16 individual fighters in current conflicts features real people and offers a snapshot of real conflicts, the focus on individuals, and the inevitable lack of context for each conflict, means that it has much in common with Paul Greengrass’ emotional narrative approach. It seems, then, that the meaning of ‘documentary-style’ is intimately bound up with documentary substance.

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