Use of 3D, new narratives… History still in progress on the small screen

Use of 3D, new narratives… History still in progress on the small screen
Use of 3D, new narratives… History still in progress on the small screen

HEADLINE – Faced with viewer demand, channels are innovating to best tell the world of yesterday and shed light on today.

The landing is in sight. The channels are preparing to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the event. France 2 returns, for the occasion, to its large fresco Apocalypse . TF1, which never offers one, has prepared a documentary, D-Day: 100 days for freedom . Months were necessary to clean and colorize, under the watchful eye of historians, the archives which will be used for this film. Histoire TV, Tout l’Histoire, RMC Découverte and Le Figaro TV (with “Parle-moi d’Histoire”) are also involved.

This enthusiasm for the PAF testifies to the good health of the genre. “A flagship of public service, historical documentaries hold a vital place in our programs”, confirms the director of the documentary unit at France Télévisions, Antonio Grigolini. Historical documents represent, at Arte, a quarter of those shown on air. Planète+, Canal+’s little sister, only shows this on the air. And thematic channels are doing well. A figure of history “storytellers”, Franck Ferrand takes an enthusiastic look at this trend: “We are quite spoiled, the number of productions is impressive and their quality continues to improve. » In order to make the story as educational and lively as possible.

Read alsoFranck Ferrand: “History, as I understand it, is first and foremost incarnation and narration”

The success of personal archives

France Télévisions can claim great success with its frescoes – a century and a half summarized in 90 minutes – relating to social history. We, the workers in 2023 and, above all, We, peasants , in 2021. Broadcast during confinement, it attracted 5 million viewers. A record. “This new form, which recounts a collective trajectory, has managed to combine historical rigor and the warmth of emotion”, analyzes Antonio Grigolini. This emotion comes, in many documentaries, from the use of personal archives. This is a strong current trend. “They express an original and often unpublished point of view. They shed light on common life, and no longer just that of great people”details Anne Grolleron, the deputy director of Arte’s society and culture unit.

In this spirit, on the occasion of the anniversary of the Landing, France 3 is programming June 4 Before our eyes, when the Normans filmed the war . Other trends, animation and drawings in turn make the story sensitive. Or to compensate for the lack of archives… As for the narration, the channels regularly call on faces from the seventh art. “Above all, you need someone capable of handling the text. When we use a known name, we try to ensure that there is a link between the subject being discussed and the person in question., explains Anne Grolleron. Bernard Lavilliers, whose father worked at the Saint-Étienne factory, was responsible for Workers’ time. Actress Lyna Khoudri (The three Musketeers) put his voice on At War(s) for Algeria, broadcast during the 60th anniversary of the Evian Accords. France 2 had requisitioned Benoît Magimel for his excellent It was the Algerian war.

Above all, documentaries are experiencing a revolution thanks to advances in digital technology, which makes it possible to make objects that have until now been difficult to show tangible, in archeology or paleontology for example. It immerses the viewer. “The development of 3D has a very broad impact. The historical genre is becoming more and more popular thanks to this technology, which was very expensive thirty years ago and much less so today.notes director Pascal Cuissot, who recently shed light on the ingenuity of Gustave Eiffel in A Visionary’s Dream on France 5. The RMC group channels swear by 3D. “We no longer order films without it. It illustrates in a more effective and impressive way than reconstructions”, assures Stéphane Sallé de Chou, in charge of RMC Découverte and RMC Story. The aim being to “spectacularize” productions to reach a younger audience.

“We benefit from new means of staging to tell the story of Antiquity or explore architectural megastructures”, adds Christophe Sommet, head of Histoire TV. A channel which achieves its best audiences thanks to wars, revolutions and ancient Egypt, a French passion! Planète+ will soon take the lead. “In order to slip complex decorative elements into reconstructions, we will use artificial intelligence”, describes Christine Cauquelin, director of documentaries for the Canal+ group. She believes that the process, used here for a film on Napoleon III, could become widespread.

The search for the new angle

The channels also have to continually rack their brains. What aspect of the Second World War, to name just one, has not yet been shown on screen? “We have to find different angles. In 2023, we have chosen to focus on four resistant women survivors of Ravensbrück”, explains Sonia Latoui, who oversees the content of Tout l’Histoire. A channel which, she says, particularly appeals to “purists”. “We are all chasing the Grail: the new subject that would meet with success. In the meantime, the idea is to show viewers an unexpected aspect of a subject they know., summarizes Anne Grolleron. In March, Arte devoted three hours to the conquest of the West, analyzed through the fate of the bison that populated the plains.

Canal+, to take steps aside, cultivates its cinematographic ambition. She is currently preparing a documentary which will retrace the hot air balloon escape of two families from East Germany. LCP is also looking to stand out. “We have a role to play by opting for unique stories and favoring, in the face of other sometimes cautious channels, daring writing”explains Isabelle Pisani, head of documentaries. The Sentinels of Oblivion, for example, last January, managed to bring the memorials to the dead of the Great War back to life. A real success.

Many documentaries use personal archives.
Robert F. Sargent/NARA

It is also about following the evolution of historiography. France 2 is working on a film dedicated to Saint-Barthélemy’s Day, in which academic Jérémie Foa will provide a different perspective on the furious day of 1572. Going beyond the role of advisors, historians are today transforming into authors. Denis Peschanski, the best connoisseur of Missak Manouchian, co-signed the documentary of La Deux broadcast on the occasion of the pantheonization. Raphaëlle Branche, specialist in the Algerian conflict, co-wrote At war(s) for Algeria, on Arte. The testimonies collected for this film have, in return, made it possible to supplement academic knowledge on the subject.

“Television is also a signal that says something about the evolution of collective memory”observes Jean Bulot, author of an excellent Before the disaster, on the beginnings of Nazism. Veteran Patrick Jeudy can only agree. “When I did my first project on Indochina in 1994, people looked at me askance. Mentalities have changed,” notes the one who recently signed a gripping film on Diên Bien Phu, The Ghosts of Tonkin.

Does television serve to supplement knowledge? “It’s indisputable. The public, a study showed us, is mainly made up of people who want to learn. Perhaps we are replacing teaching that is sometimes failing”answers Franck Ferrand, who has just inaugurated a filmed single-in-scene, The Last Hours of…, on Histoire TV. Channels are venturing into new formats. Like “History with a scalpel” on France 5, which brilliantly studies great figures of the past using the means of modern science. France 2, for its part, is preparing a documentary series with a hint of fiction: Our history of France. Vercingétorix, Clovis and Charlemagne will parade next season in the first part of the evening. And in period costumes. We are promised reconstructions and romance. The next chapter in the fruitful connections between history and television?

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