A Director's Thoughts: History, Filmmaking, and "the mysterious and fugitive nature of Truth"
When we embarked on our exploration of the loyalist experience in THE GOOD AMERICANS, it began as a sort of rescue mission — recovering the story of a group of people who did nothing less than create our modern world by establishing the United States through their abrupt absence and Canada by their unexpected presence. And then they promptly vanished, remembered only by a handful of scholars and a smattering of descendants. That was hardly an uninformed perspective; I have a PhD in History, specializing in the American Revolution, and two of our intrepid Producers are themselves talented public historians. Our film was also inspired by a new book — “The Consequences of Loyalism” (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2019) — that reflects the latest in loyalist scholarship. From concept to film, from America to Canada, from then to now, the project was hardly a leap into the dark. A three-act structure (we’ve all read our Sheila Curran Bernard) was just waiting to be scripted into a bundle of pages for our narrator, the incomparable Amber Marshall, and a sound booth somewhere near Calgary.
Then we started talking to more people — a lot more people — and we heard rather different narratives. And they were markedly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, different depending on which side of the U.S.-Canada border we were on. As a result, the measure of the impact the loyalists had on the society they left, and the society they created, took a back seat to the question of who they were in the first place. Or even how many there were (If anyone tells you that they know, or have a good estimate, they’re lying or have a book to sell you). Oddly enough, we started finding them everywhere and nowhere. We saw where they had been, in strange gaps in American histories, and in unexpected presences in Canadian histories, and in the often tortuous explanations that generations of people have tried to use to make sense of them — and their diversity. In short, every time we thought we were on secure ground, we kept losing our footing.
So our project changed. It was no longer a rescue, it was an exploration of truth. And we recognized there might not be any such thing as history, other than some set of dates that can be pegged to ostensibly important events; There are just stories and the people who tell them. This is not an original problem for filmmakers, of course. There’s always Kurosawa and Bergman for us to meditate upon. Epistemology especially follows documentarians and other historical filmmakers around like a shadow. And if it doesn't, it should.
I don’t think I realized just how much it had caught up with me, and changed our project, until I watched Sarah Polley’s extraordinary documentary, THE STORIES WE TELL (2012), “a search for the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memory.” Just as her film examined, through many lenses of experience, any truth about the past is bound to be ephemeral. Even with the best research, the perspective on what happened in our yesterdays shifts and contradicts and opens gulfs of discrepancy.
That challenge has become even greater for us, as makers of historical documentaries, because distance is our enemy. Our witnesses are long gone, leaving us with a kind of madness in attempting to recreate some sort of recognizable past through words that loyalists left behind, written in a world that no longer exists. Those words are slippery enough, in the claims they made for compensation for property lost or arguments for actions taken or laments for missing lives, almost all made after the fact. But they have been tortured even further by generations of historians on whom we thought we could rely, but who twisted and, in most cases, simply ignored an honest interpretation of those words in service to the state as builders of mythologies that justify arbitrary boundaries and sanctify otherwise questionable aspirations.
So what we’re left with is an exercise in sorting through lies, concealment, and absence. As Polley discovered, everything that we know about the past is determined by what one has been told. And by what that one was told. It’s an enormous narrative problem, for there is really no such thing as narrative history. That’s not how people experience their lives, especially in turbulent times that are difficult enough to understand in the moment with any reliable coherence. It was particularly important for people who lived during a time of intense introspection, the Eighteenth Century, when observers such as Horace Walpole could reflect at length on the subject, as when he wrote in 1772:
"One of the greatest advantages of human reason is, that it can assimilate every thing to its own nature. To use words less philosophic, Man can give an appearance of reason to every thing he says. He can lend falsehood the semblance of Truth; he can establish false principles, draw false conclusions, form false hypotheses, and yet continue to seem a rational Being. One cause of these deceptions is the mysterious & fugitive nature of Truth."
So narrative history, then as now, is an artificial construct that tells us more by what was left out than what was kept in. But, as Polley says, “Telling stories is our way of coping, a way of creating shape out of a mess. It binds everyone together.”
History, both recent, in the course of our own experience, and ancient, beyond that of anyone we can interview today, is merely a collection of impressions that have been cobbled into stories that have been turned into truths by one or more tellers. Any attempt to recreate those truths, which are nothing more or less than a selection, even a curation, of many past perceptions of reality, spells trouble for the filmmaker. It did for Polley (and Walpole) and it does for me.
But yet we press forward in our exploration, with a goal of restoring to life the loyalists of the American Revolution through their stories, and the stories told of them and their experience. And we’ll leave it to you, the viewers, to decide whether we, as storytellers, have provided you with important — and recovered — truths along the way.
So on to script #4 (Sorry, Amber).
— Tad Størmer, Executive Producer/Director