Last Night's Television: Shooting the War, BBC4
Thursday 21 January 2010
"They have an honesty about them that is purely to do with the vision of the film-maker behind the camera," someone said of the home movies featured in Shooting the War. Her point was that this footage wasn't propaganda, though she'd conveniently forgotten that home movies are always a kind of propaganda for the person behind the camera. And that people at war quite often voluntarily sign up to be just as on-message as any Ministry of Information flak. There were disturbing sights here, which cut across the official version of the war and let you see what a government might have wanted hidden. But they were vastly outnumbered by shots that would have fed perfectly happily into the hearts-and-minds operations of either side in the Second World War. The result was a curious displacement between the voiceover rhetoric ("startling intimacy", "rare footage" etc etc) and images which, by and large, were drably indistinguishable from all the wartime actuality you've seen before, but for the fact that the focus was a bit less reliable.
Part of the reason for this was simple. Amateur cameraman who are soldiers (rather than professional cameramen attached to a military unit) tend to be too busy shooting with bullets to do it with film as well. So, if you feel that a shot of the YMCA tea van visiting a barracks in County Down was what was missing from your understanding of the greatest global conflict in recent history, you may have been disappointed. And if it wasn't, you probably felt that you had seen shots of blazing German towns and dead concentration camp victims before. Without this footage, the narration concluded, "we would never have been able to see the war with such startling intimacy". But the truth about home-movie intimacy is that it gets you close to the ordinary stuff – a Friends Ambulance man mending his bicycle in China or cheery German soldiers knocking back bottles of plonk on their way into Occupied France – and may block your view of the truly momentous.
It's a piety, really, to pretend anything else, though you might well feel that piety is the least we can offer to men who risked so much and sometimes lost everything. Paul Kellerman, a German artillery spotter who carried his movie camera into Russia as the troops advanced – recording the East European Jews his colleagues would soon murder and the arrival of the winter snows that would soon murder his colleagues – never made it back home to relish his souvenirs. Others had returned, though only after seeing things that they would never forget, such as the sight of human bodies being bulldozed into a mass grave. But the truth is that their words were often more evocative than their pictures, familiar as we are with actuality of the war. Paul Kellerman's winter scenes showed men walking in the snow on a day of bright sunshine. But it was a letter to his mother that truly made the cold bite: "When I'm using my equipment," he wrote, "my eyebrows freeze to the glass." That's startling intimacy.
The Horizon film "Pill Poppers" was a mixed prescription, with some genuinely thought-provoking ideas and some rather elementary ones (how disconnected would you have to be to still need the idea of antibiotic-resistant bacteria explaining to you?). What it did rather effectively, though, was to give you a sense of tectonic shifts in our attitude to medicine. Broadly speaking, pills used to be thought of as highly targeted interventions to end illness. Now, they're increasingly thought of as general applications to preserve or even improve wellness. Statins were one good example. There has been a proposal that everyone over 50 take these anti-cholesterol drugs, a move that would obviously benefit the companies that make them. But the rationale for such mass prescription – to ill and well alike – depends on redefining a "normal" cholesterol level as that you would find in a 25-year-old. And since statins have side effects (and since the very long-term side effects won't be clear for years yet), there might be grounds for being cautious about medical enthusiasm for the drug. Ritalin was another good case in point, a drug that has proved very useful for children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but which, when given to people who don't have ADHD, has been shown to improve concentration and competence. The only problem being that no one knows what demons might crop up with mass use over the long term. And, just to complicate matters, a drug that might be life-saving for some patients might be fatal for others (as was the case with Seroxat, which induced suicidal thoughts in a worrying proportion of those who took it). The essential point was this. You might think that by the time you press a pill out of its blister pack and pop it on to your tongue that all the really critical tests have been completed. In fact, you're the real guinea pig.
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