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Approaching Film Analysis

When analysing a film, historians face challenges which are decidedly different from the analysis of written source types. This section section reflects in some depth on how to meet these challenges and gain historical insights from a film source by using a scientific and critical approach. It outlines both general ideas that went into our analysis and introduces readers to Pan.do/ra, our sequencing and annotation tool.

Compared to written sources, films consist of both more and different dimensions, the most obvious of which are the audio-visual levels of communication and the creative and technical processes of filmmaking. A historical examination of a film must therefore adapt to the form and nature of the medium and fit the traditional critical questionnaires for assessing sources into a film analysis frame.

As this homepage seeks to cover many interwoven aspects and layers of the topic area both within and around the film, it seems impractical to follow any one line of film analysis very strictly. Nevertheless we wish to share some general ideas that form the frame of thought for our research and to offer basic guidance on how to place and connect information, aiming to help and inspire readers to gain their own structured view from the materials found in various sections of this homepage. From the vast number of existing models and methods, two basic lines of approach seem particularly useful. The first one is a systematic one, which breaks a film down into its various dimensions and levels while also allowing for interconnections, overlaps and cross-influences. It facilitates an in-depth focusing on individual aspects to a high degree of detail as well as keeping track of the overall picture through an orderly and traceable matrix. The second one is that of chronological approaches, which follow the creative process of the production and development of a film by distinguishing phases and stages. These are often easier to work into a chronology-oriented historical narrative. As each line of approach can yield results that would be more difficult to ascertain with the other, our design draws on both, as is reflected in the choices for information and analysis sections.

Systematic Film Analysis

This systematic model based on Korte (2004: 23-25.) distinguishes four main dimensions for analysing a film, each with a large of number of possible subcategories branching off. The dimension of the film itself allows for a work-intrinsic survey of content and form, covering the whole range from structure, action, dialogue and setting to camera angles, lighting, background music and general aesthetics. Here a method of sequencing and film transcription is needed to make it accessible for analysis. It is then crucial to make sure one can make sense of all the information given in the film on all the various levels it is communicated on, be it language, allusions to people, places etc. or the more subtle workings of camera and lighting. Apart from background research around the themes and issues of the film, this also requires some knowledge of film semiotics in order to decode the significance of the various cinematographic techniques, audio elements etc. The dimension conditions and background seeks to assess and contextualise the production background of the film by drawing attention to when it was made, who was involved and how and why this content was turned into a film in this form, in this historic situation and with what available means. The dimension of reference, by contrast, serves to contextualise the film in terms of how the filmic representation refers, relates and compares to reality or rather the world as it is perceived outside of the film. The findings here can form the core of a subsequent critique of ideology. This dimension is of particular interest with propaganda films such as our case. The contemporary and later reception of the film and the influence it has had to date constitute the fourth dimension. More important than covering all these aspects in equal measure, though, is for an analysis to show awareness of their combination and the complexity inherent in the workings of a film as a medium.

Pan.do/ra: Tool for Sequencing and Annotation

The video annotation database we use for the analysis of the film is based on the open source software Pan.do/ra. The Heidelberg Research Architecture HRA provides an instance of the pan.do/ra software where research projects of Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe" can collaboratively annotate their video material. We use it for annotating the material and for referring to different parts of the film. The system allows for four types (or layers) of annotations: locations, keywords, description and transcriptions.

Locations are used to geographically reference places that are depicted in the film (e.g. a scene that shows the commission in the city of Mukden is tagged with the location Mukden). The database allows coordinates to be connected to every entry made in the locations field.

We use keywords to indicate the appearance of a certain person in a scene (e.g. ‘Heinrich Schnee’), to mark themes that carry a propagandist message (e.g. the theme of the ‘destroyed bridges’, which is used to justify the military intervention), to mark parts of the film as title cards (i.e. when searching for the keyword ‘title screen’ you will retrieve all the blocks of text that were inserted in-between the filmed footage), and to indicate if there is an ‘Open Question’ relating to that scene. In these cases we have added the keyword ‘Open Question’ and written the points that need to be clarified in the descriptions field.

The description layer is not only used for describing the actual content of a scene, but also for assumptions, comments, questions and references to other resources.

Since this project is concerned with the analysis of a silent film, we use the transcription layer to transcribe, and in some cases also translate, most of the written content such as all title cards or signs, banners etc. displayed in the film.

Annotations are valid for the part of the film they refer to. A part is limited by an In- and Out-Point and can be referred to with a hyperlink. You can play a video from the marker position until the end or play only a part of the video from In- to Out-point. When browsing through a film, you can either display the annotations at the current marker position or change the view mode to display all annotations within a certain time frame. You can, for instance, have a look at all the annotations that are valid for position 00:03:53.490 or alternatively select a time span, say the first five minutes, and browse through all user annotations made for this part of the film.

Chronological Film Analysis

The chronological model of analysis follows a film from its origins in a particular historical situation and environment, with a cause initiating the project, on to the planning and preparation stages, and from there to the actual filming on site or set. The subsequent postproduction and editing of the materials from the filming constitute the crucial formative stage before the finished product is shown to an audience, whose reception of the work marks the final phase. A study of the influence the film has had over time can add a long-term dimension to this last point. Although the model itself appears linear, it should still be taken into consideration that the various stages can overlap and mutually influence each other. This is especially the case when it comes to a film of political or social relevance, as is the case with our film, where the background, for instance, strongly influences all the subsequent stages while the film(ing) in turn may have some impact on the background situation.

Post-production and Intentionality

Besides the actual filming and recording, post-production is arguably the most important formative stage of film making and it seems of particular importance in the case of the Lytton Commission documentaries. It comprises all stages of film production occurring after the end of shooting and/or recording the material which may become part of the final version. This includes anything from editing the picture to sound design and mixing, writing subtitles and nowadays special effects. Obviously, post-production bears a strong potential for variation as the same material could be turned into many different films with different effects and messages. We must therefore understand post-production, just as the filming itself, as a highly selective process and it is in the criteria of selection and composition that the intentionality of the process rests. Why, for instance, would a charismatic close-up shot of a politician be followed by a wide-angle view of a cheering crowd if not to strengthen that politician’s position? Every decision in arranging and composing the materials can be assumed to serve a purpose with regard to the target audience of the film. Thus, it is one of the key tasks of a critical analysis to try and identify the intentions of the filmmakers and lay open the target-audience orientation. This is particularly challenging when there are several quite different versions of the documentary.

Technical Means and Their Use at the Time

The question of how the use of technology is employed to underline the message of a film is as interesting as it is profitable for any analysis. Every individual scene as well as the film as a whole can be interpreted under this aspect, thus yielding countless examples of messages emphasised by or coded in technical means. In the present case it seems noteworthy, for instance, that apart from cameras following the Lytton Commission on the ground the film also contains a considerable amount of aerial footage. It mainly shows large towns, industrial sites such as factories and general infrastructure. At a time when aeroplanes did not yet constitute a commonplace means of transport for the masses, this perspective would have stood out to an audience as technologically progressive. Besides the practical function of enabling the filmmakers to portray vast formations and structures, thus conveying an idea of material greatness brought to an underdeveloped Manchuria by Japanese investments, the chosen technical means also stand for modernity and progress, thus underlining Japan’s immaterial greatness.

The Importance of Genre

Film as a medium comprises a comprises a broad range of genres and sub-forms, which further determine the eligible approaches and bring up some crucial questions. It is therefore paramount to categorise the source to be analysed and infer what this means for one’s research interest, the means of finding and the potential and limitations of the conclusions. In other words, what is it that a documentary film can tell us which we would not be able to find out from other sources? How is this different from analysing e.g. a feature film or a TV series? And what do we need to bear in mind accordingly?

"documentary (adj.): factual, realistic; applied esp. to a film or literary work, etc., based on real events or circumstances, and intended primarily for instruction or record purposes." (Oxford English Dictionary, online version, 11/2011).

Unlike any other film genre, documentaries commonly purport to be an (accurate) representation of reality. For any research purposes involving documentary films, this claim of being ‘true’ or ‘real’ is both their catch and their asset. Every narrative is in its essence the result of a construction process by individuals, who, whether they mean to or not, inevitably render it subjective to some degree and bring certain intentions into the process. For an analysis this always represents a challenge but even more so when the work to be examined is deliberately biased as is the case with a propaganda piece. Here nothing can be taken at face value. Provided one treats documentaries with the appropriate caution and critical distance, however, it is precisely this catch that can be turned into a challenging and very instructive level of examination, i.e. the dimension of reference in the model of systematic film analysis outlined above. Rather than seeing them as straightforward representations of reality we prefer to define and treat documentaries as films which claim to be non-fictional representations of reality - a small but very crucial difference.

For historians, then, the important question is what kind of narrative was constructed and why. As there are usually many conceivable versions of recounting events, one of the main tasks is to watch out for one-sidedness and partialities. Here it is essential to have more information than what the film contains in order to be able to comment on what was chosen not to be shown and ponder the possible reasons for this. What is more, it would be a grave lapse to assume that documentaries were any less aestheticized than other genres such as feature films. The according techniques may sometimes be more subtle but, on close inspection, are usually used just as extensively.

Film as a Mode of Communication: Making Messages for Audiences

Highlighting the intentionality and constructed nature of a documentary leads us directly on to the question of who the intended audience is and whether this is the same as the actual audience. Both can be difficult to determine, and that as is the case here, what with multiple versions, overlapping stages of post-production and distribution and a dearth of sources on them somewhat patchy either on or relating to the film’s production. Nevertheless, identifying the target-viewers is worthwhile as it helps in determining the communicative function of the film with regard to that audience and vice versa: is the film supposed to inform, enlighten, influence, propagate, intervene, explore, express, obscure, confuse, distract, disturb etc.? Some answers to this can be found in the section ‘A Film for a Global Public?’.