Special Section History of Life Writing Theory Study Comparative Biography Autobiography Study Subject Study Film Biography From the Life Writer Essays on Life Writing Academic Info More
Documentary Biography as Social and Cultural History: The Case of Biography Hawai’i

*This essay was presented as a Keynote at the Biography and Film Conference, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Life Writing, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and the Center for Biographical Research, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Abstract: As William H. Epstein, Dennis Bingham, and many other theorists and critics of the biopic and film biography in general have observed, such life narratives often serve to reinforce dominant ideology, as even their formal qualities can result in the assimilating or the erasing of conscious efforts at dissent.In this essay I will discuss some of the theoretical implications that arise from the process of making television documentaries about individuals known for their efforts, in the face of economic and social colonialism, to preserve indigenous history, art, and culture, or to protect and extend rights to immigrant workers and political activists. I will show how the selection of detail and the shaping of a documentary life narrative responds to the conflicting claims of representing a life “objectively” and of depicting larger struggles between social forces that the documentary makers often cannot represent as equivalent or neutral.I will provide examples from the Biography Hawaiʻi television documentary series, which I have co-produced for the past fifteen years.

Keywords: Documentary Biography, Hagiography, Biography Hawaiʻi