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An exercise in narrative and film editing from Professor Michael O'Malley of George Mason University

An uninterrupted shot preserves a single duration of time, what we call a single "take." But that footage can be altered through cutting, usually trimming the beginning and ending to perfect timing and emphasis, before it is seen in a finished film. Even more important, in almost all modern films this trimmed footage, now known as a "shot," is combined with other shots. This juxtaposition of shots is known as editing. As the practice of editing developed, filmmakers used it to provide different viewpoints on an action or to switch the viewpoint from one place to another. Filmmakers quickly discovered the magic of editing: that one shot could influence another -- even change its meaning when they were juxtaposed -- and could create a sequence of action or portray a locale.

One famous story illustrates how editing, combined with narration, can create the false appearance of historical evidence. France's Lumiére company was one of the first filmmaking companies to project motion pictures successfully. Their skilled operators toured the world with their invention, known as the Cinématographe, both showing films from South America to Morocco and making films to show to audiences curious to see exotic lands. François Doublier, a Lumiére operator, took the Cinématographe to Moscow in 1898 during the height of the Dreyfus scandal. Russian audiences, including many Jews, were extremely interested in this unfolding injustice and asked Doublier for films about it. Doublier did not have any, but, recognizing the potential popularity of a Dreyfus program, assembled a number of films he had on hand -- a group of French soldiers with an officer, an imposing building in Paris, and a ship at sea -- and created one. Doublier narrated the films as an unfolding drama. The first film, he declared, showed Dreyfus, the brave officer, with his men. The public building, he claimed, was the courthouse within which the trial of Dreyfus was taking place. Finally, the nautical film showed, according to Doublier, Dreyfus being transported to his prison exile on Devil's Island. Apparently most of his audience accepted the films, since they satisfied their desire to see images of these events. But at one showing, a canny audience member pointed out that images of Dreyfus in command would have predated the 1895 invention of Lumiére's Cinématographe.

Even if films have not been totally fabricated, it is difficult to create a truly dramatic sequence of historical events when filming in the midst of them. Films shown on television documentary programs to represent battle may cut freely from bombs falling from a plane to their impact on the ground. Each image may be an authentic image of the battle, but in no way are the bombs we see exploding those we saw released from the plane. Film editing has performed its magic, creating a new fictional whole out of real parts. Films with multiple perspectives dramatically juxtaposed (such as the African natives recoiling before Roosevelt) most likely belong either in the realm of fiction (arranged after the fact) or, occasionally, result from an event that was carefully arranged in order to be filmed by multiple interrelated cameras. Nazi officials specially arranged a 1934 Nazi Party rally in Munich for filming by Leni Riefenstahl to create the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. To distinguish fictional films of events from documentary records, look for signs of arrangement such as editing of footage after the fact or the careful staging of shots. In fact, filmmakers and television producers (such as Oliver Stone in JFK or the creators of the television show Homicide) often give their fictional footage a shaky hand-held, awkwardly-composed look to increase its "authenticity."

The difference between the fictional and the staged raises another problem with films as historical evidence. Unless recording a pre-arranged event, film cameras are unlikely to capture key historical moments. Newsreel cameras might record Churchill, Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt appearing publicly at Yalta, but they were not permitted into the carefully guarded meeting that decided the shape of the post World War II world. A newsreel cameraman caught the explosion of the Hindenberg zeppelin because its landing was a newsworthy event and he was there; he was unaware that he would film starkly dramatic footage rather than simply an important event. The same is true of the home movie taken by the Zapruder family of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Film and television cameramen have risked their lives filming dangerous situations such as battles, riots, and bombings, but the actual historical value of such spectacular records may be limited. Important as it is, the Zapruder film does not contain the information needed to answer all of the questions about the assassination. What information it does have has been garnered by careful expert examination of the film, combined with other documents, and is still open to controversy. Key historical moments are often best understood through a constellation of sources, and film images often play a subordinate role in these arrangements, illustrating an event like the Great Depression through a stereotypical image of apple vendors rather than actually deepening our knowledge of the causes or human cost of the era's economic upheaval.