What's great about oral history

Cultural education

by Iva Rosandić

The students who took part in the Double Load project showed how oral history as an independent discipline and in a slightly modified form can be the starting point for excellent artistic work.

Since education policy is contradictory and its approach is essentially not defined, it is directly subject to the respective particular interests of the currently ruling parties and thus represents a far greater problem than the inadequate approach to potentially controversial issues. While the humanistic approach to education is seen as outdated and disruptive, the remnants of cultural and arts education are being marginalized in order to no longer pose a threat. Regardless of what should be considered important according to so-called societal consensus, a cursory glance at the curricula and their implementation is sufficient to determine that they are an ideal basis for a high level of indoctrination and general ignorance that is caused by a proclaimed competition - and winning culture can only be promoted.

For some time now, a schizophrenic atmosphere can be perceived in public, which is created by the uncritical copying of foreign education systems. But even the attempt to sporadically integrate non-formal educational aspects into the school system shows how the potential of generally relevant and current content is insufficiently exploited. The project Double Load, organized by the Goethe-Institut Croatia as part of a program of the European Union and coordinated by Petra Vidović, aims to test new methods of dealing with controversial topics and to motivate them to become fully involved in other areas. The core and aim of the project is to promote the artistic and cultural commitment of schoolchildren in order to develop critical skills and an attitude towards questions that burden society as a whole. Here, learning about the Holocaust and National Socialism, with a focus on the local context, should be an impetus to find creative solutions and to actively relate to the events that shaped the past century and still largely influence opinion today . The project supports the idea of ​​training individuals who think and act independently, who can make their own contribution to the critical interpretation of historical phenomena, which can consequently also be transferred to other systematically neglected topics. With the large number of participants - from teachers to educators, cultural workers and artists to the schoolchildren - an attempt was made to avoid an unproductive examination of the past as well as a fact-based conveying of history outside the socially relevant framework.

The number of countries involved shows how big the project Double Load is: in addition to Croatia, Germany, Serbia, Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina are also involved, official partners are Documenta - Center for Coming Up With the Past (Zagreb), Forum for Applied History (Belgrade) , Festival of Jewish Film (Zagreb), History Museum Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo) and the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation (Weimar) are. The current situation shows us how a generation needs to be brought up which, if it recognizes social contradictions, can more easily integrate into community life. Because of this, the project considers the peculiarities and historical burden of each individual participating country and puts them in relation to general events in history. Unfortunately, such educational programs are only conducted experimentally and on a voluntary basis, so the number of people involved is limited. From Croatia, the Fran Galović high school from Koprivnica and the Ban Josip Jelačić middle school from Zaprešić took part, which indicates the tendency towards the integration of cities outside of Zagreb.

After a series of joint workshops and lectures, each school was given sufficient freedom to develop creative ideas according to their ideas. The recently organized intervention in Koprivnica entitled Mapping Koprivnica is an example of the mediation of historical memory in public space and the symbolic approach of people who share the same space at different times. Saša Šimpraga developed the concept for this artistic-educational intervention, and it was designed by the students with the support of designer Petra Milički and scenographer Ana Ogrizović. The parallel showing of the documentary films by the students from Zaprešić and Veszprém and the associated panel discussion with Maja Dubljević from Documenta on the methods of oral history, on the other hand, drew our attention to the overlap between historical content and pop culture and the problem of forgetting dark episodes from the not so distant past.

While the film by the students from Zaprešić focuses on the present by confronting their peers with their own contradicting views on the use, emphasis and use of negative symbols, the Hungarian film reconstructs the past with the help of archive material and thereby underlines the void of meaning caused by the disappearance of contemporary witnesses. We witnessed completely different approaches to approach the topic, whereby the different cultural backgrounds played a subordinate role and the range of the most varied possibilities of the documentary film genre came into play. While we are inclined to think that their meaning has been overcome, the introduction of seemingly neutral, altered, or overtly racist symbols into the realms of pop culture shows the need for them to be contextualized in terms of the context in which they occur. Surprisingly precisely, it was not ignorance but rather conscious ignorance and the refusal to take responsibility for one's own actions that were identified as the real cause of the problem.

It is difficult to say to what extent the film is a product of independent reflection by the students and to what extent it bears the signature of the mentors. In any case, it is an excellent example of how the idea of ​​learning through intellectual engagement in different media works. It is even more important that the audience reacted, be it through criticism, the need to take refuge in self-justification or through consent, and thus an exchange of views was made possible beyond the circle of those involved. The film authors emphasized how they influenced the concentrated work and research in adopting an articulate attitude towards the negative phenomena in today's society. At the same time, they have become aware of the deeper meaning of some symbols that are present in everyday life and have fundamentally changed and critically questioned their personal perception of reality. It just had to arouse curiosity about the different layers of reality and the creative game could begin.

The Hungarian students tried to use a range of authentic materials from their tragic city history to touch the audience on an emotional level. Compassion should bridge the time gap between generations. In doing so, they skilfully address the question of the disappearance of contemporary witnesses and the risk of manipulation and irresponsibility with the exclusive use of archive material. Archives without any human element create distance and hardly develop a suggestive effect, since they are considered to be closed. Here Maja Dubljević was able to report on her specific work at Documenta. As editor of the material collection produced with Oral History, she presented the advantages of this method. Basically, it is about the search for authentic contemporary witnesses and the recording of their memories, be it in the form of audio or video recordings or transcripts. The aim of the method is to leave future generations of scientists a rich collection of material from the impressions of contemporaries, whose lives are embodied in the history shaped by numerous upheavals. Even if the method of oral history is based on a pronounced subjectivity, it is essential for the representation of profound changes in all aspects of life that are influenced by external upheavals. The researcher and the respondent are placed in a psychological interdependent situation from which a mutual relationship can easily develop with implications for the end result. Difficulties in using the method arise if, for example, the respondent is unintentionally steered towards confirming the researcher's thesis and selective or subsequent reminders, including later findings, predominate. Nevertheless, this method is important in social interaction, against the impending oblivion or the repetition of this dark chapter of history.

The problem with the time of the Second World War is that there are only a small number of living witnesses who are the only ones able to reproduce the atmosphere of the time. It is certainly no coincidence that many documentaries are made with people who have seen the turning points of history. You are trying to look behind the facade of well-known facts. The phenomenon of mass mobilization for ideas that at first glance we are inclined to claim that they are difficult to implement seems particularly interesting. Last year the documentary essay was at the Festival of Tolerance The radical evil presented by Stefan Ruzowitzky and aroused great interest as the director reversed perspectives and looked for testimonies and records of the executioners of the death squads who murdered two million Jews face to face. Although we tend to believe that these are pathological cases, we are faced with an enormous number of citizens who are no different from us. The film serves as a medium for deciphering the causes of the terrifying fact that “Monsters exist, but there are too few to be really dangerous. Normal people are those who are dangerous. " (Primo Levi).

Uncovering hidden and reluctant facts is half the way to prevent them from repeating themselves. And here the didactic and insightful value of cultural and artistic work is confirmed. Art has the potential to take people in and it tends to evoke reactions. However, as with all historical investigations, doubts arise about the authenticity, since people behave differently in front of a camera. That is why it is important for the viewer to maintain a healthy level of skepticism, which, by the way, also sharpens his eye for a precise consideration of reality with all its contradictions.

Those involved in the project did just that: they found an interesting topic and applied what they had learned. They materialized their conclusions based on historical facts as well as their own observations made through the reconstruction of eyewitness testimony. It has been shown on how many levels the tools of oral history can be used, since content that was previously reserved for a select group of people is also made available to the general public. Indeed, with the idea that an absolute truth does not exist, but only different interpretations of the same, oral history as an independent discipline in a modified form has become the basis for great works. It is evident that educational programs based on a similar foundation dispel prejudice against adolescents who are passive and self-sufficient and can now be viewed solely as their natural response to the system as a whole.

The text was published on April 4, 2015 on the internet portal kulturpunkt.hr and is published here with the kind permission of the author.