This website uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some of these cookies are used for visitor analysis, others are essential to making our site function properly and improve the user experience. By using this site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. Click Accept to consent and dismiss this message or Deny to leave this website. Read our Privacy Statement for more.
Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 56.2: Sara Blaylock
Share |

Post-truth and the critical media consumer: Afterthoughts on In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas

Sara Blaylock (email | website)

Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Minnesota – Duluth

It is a great understatement to note that a lot has changed since I first wrote my text on In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas in the summer of 2014. The world has witnessed political upheavals that seem at the moment no less than catastrophic, even apocryphal, particularly in the US. And yet, at the same time that for many democracy has never before been so aggressively tested, for others, the “Make America Great Again” mantra that got the man into office remains not only an actuality, but a source of continued hope. The nation is divided.

For many this is not a new reality. What is new are the ways that the division between those who see the US tilting towards a precipice and those who see it soaring into a new horizon have manifested in public discourse. At the end of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary presciently named the word of the year “post-truth.” The adjective at once describes and diagnoses this cultural condition as a period of shared skepticism. The emergence of accusations of “fake news” and a plea for the veracity of “alternative facts” from the Trump camp have likewise entrenched the US in an impossible battle that has only dug divisions deeper. Differing standards of or expectations for accurate and truthful reporting surely boggle those on any point along the contemporary political spectrum. Of course, that one person’s fact may be another person’s conspiracy theory is today almost a triviality. At best, a contest of voices is a welcome necessity in a world composed of heterogeneous worldviews and experience. Truth remains illusory. But what of reality?

Perhaps what is most daunting about the contemporary US political moment is the constant readjustment of reality—the deciding that, for example, threats made by a nation’s leader should only be taken in earnest when convenient for said leader or that photographic proof is less relevant than the hubris of one man’s insatiable ego. Are the MAGA-followers consuming reality in corrupted form because experience has demonstrated for them that facts are a contingency, a contextual convenience? Or, is Trump’s echo chamber actually wrought from the very quest to know a fact differently, a quest that, in important ways, also defines his opposition? The answer is ambiguous, at best a maybe. Post-truth is a problem—a threat, really, to the foundations of critical media consumption, which demands a principled public living a shared reality (if not always a shared truth). Luckily today’s media consumers are more attuned to the slippery relativism championed by the apostles of alternative facts.

These thoughts inform my consideration, three years on, about the stakes of In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas for a contemporary, and especially US, audience. In my article, I argue that both films reflect a particular media moment and that their makers equaled the production of a globally-minded citizen with the production of a critical media consumer. For both Emile de Antonio and Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann a critical cinema was a matter of both national and international concern. As part of my analysis, I discuss a core problematic of both of these films, namely, how the ideological investments of their directors sometimes interfere with a clarity of information. That this interference was deliberate is certain; manipulating imagery or obscuring context was a strategy for strengthening either film’s politics.

Indeed, de Antonio admits to producing what today some might call a form of fake news. For example, he concedes that a montage of a search-and-destroy mission (which I describe at length in my text) is crafted. He nonetheless defends the sequence: “It makes no difference if those images really occurred that way, because they did occur that way in a moral sense.”[1] De Antonio received some flak for this use of imagery from his peers. Today, a deliberate manipulation of images would likely meet an even greater condemnation. To craft crisis is to undo its significance; we want facts that advance reasonable—ideally socratic—argument.

PIP_Clip2 from Chris Becker on Vimeo.

A sympathetic international press likewise questioned Heynowski and Scheumann for relying on staged scenes in their documentaries. The filmmakers brushed off these critiques as misconstrued, arguing that political messaging always relies upon manipulative tactics.[2] From this perspective, the deliberate manufacturing of facts is an acceptable approach if its aim is constructive. According to longtime Heynowski and Scheumann cameraman Hans Leupold, savvy (and likewise sympathetic) East German viewers noted these manipulations.[3] For example, the restaging of an American pilot’s capture by a villagers in North Vietnam was obvious cinematic drama—its message another ploy within the film’s rhetorical structure. A more substantial critique of Pilots in Pajamas, which remains significant today and seems to not have concerned the filmmakers or their audience, is that the conditions that led the twelve prisoners to be interviewed remain unexplained.[4] Similarly, though less explicitly coercive, Michael Renov has justifiably questioned de Antonio’s exclusive use of the testimony and expertise of western (and almost all white) men for the entirety of In the Year of the Pig’s analysis of the crisis in Vietnam.[5]

If these two films were met with some skepticism in their own time, it is no surprise that they might trigger a similar response in a 21st century audience. Lest it seem that I am throwing these two important works into the post-truth stew of fake news and alternative facts, I would like to emphasize that I find both films particularly instructive about the kind of information making that was relevant—and necessary—for their Cold War contemporary. Both In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas are somewhat incompatible with a media savvy population that increasingly comprises our contemporary—and this is a good thing! Our audiences today tend to understand that the representation of facts is quite often vulnerable to politics, and that this contingency helps to inspire debate and conversation. There is no place for simplified narratives in the shared construction of reality. This is not to say that facts should be presented as slippery and convenient half-truths. We ought to approach the world with the understanding that reality is comprised of pluralities, not singularities. Today’s critical media consumer has learned to require a multiplicity of sources and subjectivities to represent a controversial subject. We are at best intersectional producers as well as intersectional recipients of information. We both contain and demand multitudes.

In short, In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas matter today for at least two reasons. The first is historical. These two films document parallel media moments that unite the sentiment of American leftist politics with those of state socialism. This relationship requires further inspection, particularly on the level of culture. Doing so resists the schematics of global enemies, bringing to the fore compatibilities, including shared weakness. The second merit of In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas is likewise historical, but more in terms of their comparative difference to the contemporary. Today, these films appear dated in large part because their projects were wrought too aggressively in the form of a kind of isolated political monologue. The Vietnamese de Antonio seeks to represent are absent; the Americans Heynowski and Scheumann seek to redeem are browbeaten. The information gathering of both films is swayed in a predictable direction that was clearly comfortable to their makers. This is not good enough for today’s critical media consumer.

The concept of post-truth need not be commandeered by those who define facticity as at best an inconvenience, at worst a ruse, and who have replaced civic discourse with feeling in a way that comes uncomfortably close to fascism. Rather, the critical media consumer today approaches the presentation of fact with a skepticism informed by the pull of reason. We require multiple sources of truth and realize that truthiness (to coin a phrase of comforting satire) might actually be one of the most functional approaches to building democracy if and when its sources confess their own inadequacy.

Our best defense is thus to be bold in our political positions, but also to admit a need for more and better insight; to approach truth as a reality that has happened “in a moral sense.”

[1] Emile de Antonio and June Perry Levine, “Sheldon Film Theater: ‘In the Year of the Pig’ by Emil de Antonio with Host June Perry Levine, 1991,” on In the Year of the Pig, dir. Emile de Antonio (1967; n.p.: Home Vision Entertainment, 2005), DVD.

[2] See for example Mogens Rukov’s 1977 interview with Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann. “Respekt vor der Autorität der Tatsachen: Zur Rezeption der H&S-Filme in Westeuropa” (Respect in the face of the facts: On the reception of DEFA films in Western Europe), in Dokument und Kunst: Vietnam bei H&S: Eine Werkstatt, ein Thema, elf Jahre, dreizehn Filme (Document and art: Vietnam with H&S: One workshop, one theme, eleven years, thirteen films), ed. Robert Michel (Berlin: Akademie der Künste der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik & Henschelverlag Kunst und Gesellschaft, 1977), 37–40. Nora M. Alter writes that this interview was conducted for Swedish television. “Excessive Requisites: Vietnam through the East German Lens,” in Projecting History German Nonfiction Cinema, 1967–2000 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 26.

[3] Hans Leupold, in Hasso Bräuer, Abgeschossen—die Geschichte von den Piloten im Pyjama (Shot down: The story of the pilots in pajamas), Transfer-Film for MDR/SFB, 1996, quoted in Steinmetz, “Heynowski & Scheumann,” 373–374.

[4] Nora M. Alter includes a brief discussion of this polemic. “Excessive Requisites,”  27–2

[5] Michael Renov, “Imaging the Other: Representations of Vietnam in ’60s Political Documentary,” Afterimage 16, no. 5 (1988): 10–12.

Contact Us

Society for Cinema and Media Studies
640 Parrington Oval
Wallace Old Science Hall, Room 300
Norman, OK 73019
(405) 325-8075