Oral History and Film

Earlier this year, I set out to compile a list of films that make use of oral history.

The distinction between these 'oral history films' and other documentaries is a fragile one: the films must use oral history strategies. Student should be able to recognize, in these films, the kinds of qualities that distinguish an oral history approach from a journalistic approach. Alternately, the film may be one project/byproduct of an oral history archive or effort. This is how I'm defining it for the sake of my list.

This is an aggregated list, with special thanks to Martha Norkunas, and also to: Al Stein, Chris Simon, Henry Greenspan, Elmer Ploetz, Sarah Yahm, Sarah Milligan, and Cynthia Vagnetti. I have also added films to this list that I use in my courses.

Please feel free to contact me with suggestions.
                                                                                     -Suzanne Snider
Enemies of the People, Thet Sambath  (2011)

Chile, Obstinate Memory, Patricio Guzman

Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith

Harlan County, U.S.A. (103 min.,1976)

History and Memory, Rea Tajiri, 32 min, Video Data Bank,

Hearts of Steel

Hitler’s Secretary: Blind Spot

Los Trabajadores, The Workers (2001)

Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle (58 minutes, 1982)

Reds (fiction)

Regret to Inform,  Barbara Sonneborn (72 min, Sun Fountain Productions, 2000). http://www.regrettoinform.org/

Rosie the Riveter:  the Life and Times of (60 min., 1980)

Shoah: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/shoah

The Fog of War, directed by Errol Morris, 107 min., 2003.

Nobody's Business, by Alan Berliner 60 min., 1999

The Uprising of '34 (90 minutes, 1995)

War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (New Zealand)

Several members of the Oral History listserv also let me know about their projects, available on youtube, or by e-mailing them, directly.

Sarah Milligan:

In 2002, the Kentucky Oral History Commission completed work on a
documentary film about the civil rights movement in Kentucky. You can
find more information about it  on the Kentucky Educational Televisions
website: http://www.ket.org/civilrights/

We also have an online database of the interviews that were gathered
leading up to the event at:


Elmer Ploetz:

If anybody's interested, they could check out my doc on history of local punk.
The trailer is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cyJXQ-ujj8 . The 93-documentary is essentially an oral history (in the broader sense, not in the most academic sense) of the scene in that era. Most find it's also pretty interesting, even if you have no knowledge of that particular place and time.


Chris Simon:

My film "Down an Old Road: The Poetic Life of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel" won the OHA media prize in 2003. It's 37 minutes and tells the story of the Okies in California by using Wilma McDaniel's vivid poetry. It is based on oral history interviews with McDaniel and presents an alternative to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath by someone who actually lived it.  I also have "My Canyonlands" (54 minutes) based on interviews with Utah canyon country explorer Kent Frost. Kent Frost, now 93, disappeared as a boy into the Utah's unmapped canyons and came back a changed man. His extensive hiking and river running led to the founding of Canyonlands National Park. The interviews are woven together with archival footage, photos, and music to create a portrait of Frost and the land he loves.  You can see a couple of clips at the following links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngOC8yf2X5Ihttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkfZ-H1sMJQ


Martha Norkunas [mailto:m.norkunas@mail.utexas.edu]
I made a 28 minute film based on oral histories that I did with women who worked in the Lowell textile mills called "And that's how we did in the mills: Women in the Lowell Textile Mills."  I would be happy to send the DVD to anyone who mails me a stamped, self addressed padded envelope with a plastic DVD case inside. It showed on WGBH Boston in the 1980s; I digitized and re-edited it this past summer. The film is divided into three sections: stories of the voyage to the U.S., stories of life in the ethnic neighborhood, and stories of work in the textile mills.  Apart from the introduction, the rest of the narrative is taken from the field recordings I did with ethnic women in Lowell in the 1980s.


Cynthia Vagnetti [mail to:cynthiavagnetti@gmail.com]

"...a short I have on YOUTUBE:(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n840yGO8lUE)
The title: "Voices From the Field."

Al Stein:

Al suggested these three documentaries on Studs Terkel:

1. Studs Terkel on A Soapbox

2. Rocking the Boat: Studs Terkel's 20th Century

3. The Elder Studs Terkel: Activist for Labor. (available through Labor Beat)

Also, an interesting note from Henry Greenspan:

I had meant to send to the list that the outtakes from Shoah that Lanzmann never used are available at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Many are available directly through their Web site.

As can be imagined, these are fascinating and very useful for teaching. Personally, I also think they put some of the more "controversial" segments into informing context.