Documentary filmmakers have an obvious problem with everything that happened before the invention of photography. How do you make a film about the French Revolution without any footage of the events? There is only so much one can do with paintings, engravings and contemporary footage of historic places, because they are either static, which film hates, or lacking in people. And history, or at least the part of it we like to see on television, is made by people doing things.
In Britain, where monarchy and particularly the Tudors are frequent subjects for TV history, the usual approach is the vague reconstruction. Queens look wistfully from the windows of period houses, courtiers walk deep in conversation through timeless gardens, hooves thunder across grass. To save money, there are lots of close ups—quills across parchment, sealing wax, pained eyes—and a preference for atmospheric firelight and candles. The dumb show is merely a background for the narrator’s voiceover, something to keep the eyes amused while the story is told.
It is not the only solution to the absence of visual material though. A TV series on the historical relationship between Jews and Muslims, made by Karim Miské and broadcast on Arte, made extensive use of drawings. Adopting the ligne claire style popularized by Hergé, they represented long past people, events and places, sometimes using light animation: a bicycle moving down a street, a figure passing across a room.
Which solution one prefers is a matter of taste, but the drawings seemed to me to have one big advantage over the filmed reconstructions: they were obviously representations. No one could mistake them for anything other than a picture of what the past might have seemed like. The risk of photography is always that we believe it shows reality, rather than its depiction. As CGI gets daily closer in its construction of what we see, we are increasingly vulnerable to being deceived into believing that what we are shown is true.
Now that cameras are to be allowed into British courtrooms, albeit tentatively, the artists whose pastel sketches have illustrated the television news for so long may find themselves out of work. And we may lose another unconscious signal to be wary of the difference between reality and its representation. Drawing is one way of keeping us honest—on both sides of the camera.