'So, Did You See Me?': Testimony, Memory and Re-Making Film History
by Stephen Goddard
Testimony (as Memoir)
My mother’s testimony is closer to memoir than fully-fashioned autobiography. Judith Barrington provides a clear and useful distinction: ‘An autobiography is the story of a life ... Memoir, on the other hand, makes no pretense of replicating a whole life’. (3) My mother’s testimony does not present either the story or even a complete life-story. Rather than autobiography, her testimony is presented as a series of episodic scenes. And whilst her testimony is the result of both a conscious sense of selection and a performative sense of improvisation, there is never a sense that these selections are guided by the need to develop and maintain a singular thematic coherence.
Testimonies, as a form of oral memoir, are also based on how one perceives one’s own life. A testimony provides an accounting and a sense of witnessing, from one’s own vantage points. In this respect, it shares many of the characteristics of memoirs based on personal experience or personal knowledge. Paul Valéry poetically reminds us that experience is mediated by an autobiographical witness: ‘In my opinion it is more useful to speak of what one has experienced than to pretend to a knowledge that is entirely impersonal, an observation without an observer. In fact, there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography’. (4) For Valéry, it may not be a matter of trying to define what is or might be autobiographical; it may be a matter of considering whether we can exist outside the realm of the subjective and autobiographical.
My mother’s testimony is effectively an autobiographical video memoir – performed and improvised in one sitting. Across the years, I had heard fragments of her wartime stories. The presence of a camera, microphone and interviewer was an attempt to summon all of these stories (and emotions) in one session for a new audience. Instead of costume changes, the only interruptions to the storytelling were for changing videotapes. Although the interviewer compiled and selected questions based on a pre-testimony interview, the recorded testimony was unrehearsed. Inevitably, there was a theatrical sense of performativity, where the stories and the storytelling were continuously inflected with delicate improvisation. There were no second takes and no sense of providing a performance that could later be edited. What we see and hear in these testimonies is a mix of interviewer questions and testimonial responses. We also see and hear a human listening to her own improvising voice: attempting with uncertainty to document and simultaneously understand her experiences, as well as her memories of those experiences.
Some families are able to gather around a family photo album, to hear the stories that surround the images of parents and relatives in earlier times. My parents did not have any photographs from their days before war. My mother’s prisoner number clothing tag is the earliest remaining image representing her identity. As an antidote to the lost images of her formative days, and as a way of representing the events that were never recorded, the stories and anecdotes from her Shoah testimonial have now become the soundtrack to a lost ‘home movie’.
Remembering (as Rewriting)
Testimonies, based on first-hand experiences, are often valued as primary source material. In a courtroom, an eyewitness testimony is also valued for its impact on jurors. And yet, eyewitnesses and their testimony can be forgetful, interpretive and uncertain. In much the same way, a memoir based on testimony can proceed on the basis of conjecture, invention and partial knowledge. My mother’s testimony was an unscripted narration, which seemed, at times, to rely on speculation. From watching and listening to her testimony, I know that there is also a great deal of selective remembering. Some things are all-too-well-remembered; other things are either not-so-well-remembered, or appear not to be well-remembered, because they are not-so-well-performed. The gaps in her fading memory, and the lack of images from the period, motivated her attempts to (re)construct and narrate stories that were always in the process of being rewritten.
With reference to his own autobiographical project, Roland Barthes acknowledges the ways in which writing is also an act of rewriting: ‘I had no other solution than to rewrite myself – at a distance, a great distance – here and now: to add to the books, to the themes, to the memories, to the texts, another utterance, without my ever knowing whether it is about my past or present that I am speaking’. (5) My mother’s testimony was not a continuously retrospective narrative. Whilst reflecting upon and narrativising her life experiences, the focus was as much on the present as it was on past events. Although the representational image of my mother was firmly and relentlessly set in the present, her vocal narration moved between the introspective and retrospective: travelling freely between the distanced past and the living room of the present.
Testimony and telling a (life) story is as much a form of writing as a form of rewriting: rewriting the story, re-writing yourself, and rewriting history. Testimony, as narrated memoir, is inflected as much by authentic memory and eyewitness memories as it is informed by creative, performed, improvised, invented and rewritten narration. And there is something inherently rewriteable about oral histories and video testimonies, because there is always the possibility of adding to the rememberings, revelations and interpretations. Each subsequent generation can also add its own layers of annotation.
At the end of the Shoah Foundation recordings, family members are asked whether they wish to add a comment to the videotape. At the time, I remember thinking that whatever comments I might make would seem banal and trifling in relation to what had just transpired. Without having seen or heard the previous two hours of testimony, it seemed like a daunting task. Nevertheless, I added a short message: more as a way of speaking to my Mother than anything else. In many respects, I am now trying, in a slightly more considered way, to add my annotations to her testimony, and to speak to her again. It is also part of a continuing effort to speak to, and reconsider, the important legacies of her generation.
Storytelling often occurs in the presence of others – others who are also authoring and telling their stories. I am attempting to re-enter the room from which I was excluded when my mother provided her testimony. In attempting to communicate with her again, I’m also trying to remember her, and remember what she remembered. By remembering with her, I’m co-memorating.
For me, at the time, Schindler’s List seemed somewhat pale and all too distant compared to my mother’s graceful video testimony. Her story is a telling story, because it is a story she is telling – to me, for me, and for future generations. One of the legacies I have inherited from her testimony is the belief in the possibility of rewriting, reinterpreting, and starting again. My mother used video and the performative process of testimony to rewrite and re-envisage herself. When she told her stories, she regenerated herself and set herself free.
My mother agreed to provide her testimony for the Shoah Foundation six months after my Father had done so. It was not an automatic decision for her. I believe that she agreed to tell her side of her story because she felt that her stories had been appropriated and rewritten (by others), and that in order to survive (once again), she needed to narrate, rewrite and remake her own history (again). By looking at and listening to the video recordings of family testimonies, we can see and hear how the participants (collectively, members of our family), whilst bearing witness, are also in the process of rewriting their past(s) and reinventing themselves.
Whenever we remember one thing, we forget another ...
We are, therefore, constantly in the process of remembering ... and forgetting ...
To fill the gaps in our memories, to create stories of coherence, and to give an account of our selves,
we rewrite and remake our stories – into our histories and into our futures ...
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