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Nations and Nationalism 11 (3), 2005, 423442.

r ASEN 2005

The nation remembers: national

identity and shared memory in
television documentaries
Department of Communication Studies, Ben Gurion University and Department
of Political Science, Tel-Aviv University

ABSTRACT. This article explores the impact of recent trends towards globalisation
on the ways in which national identity and shared memory nd expression in the
media. Concentrating on television documentaries produced through international coproductions, I show how national consciousness became a key ideological component
in the construction of televised narratives. This illustration will be made through the
examination of a particular co-produced television documentary, The Fifty Years War.
To make this programme possible, funding from three television networks was secured,
with each source given the right to use the produced footage to construct its own
version of the nal product. The completed series thus exists in three distinct versions,
British (BBC2), American (PBS) and Middle Eastern (MBC). Since the nal product of
this co-production was split into several national/cultural versions, the content of the
different national/cultural projects became translated into different presentations of
reality. In analysing the similarities and differences among the three end-products,
this article offers some reections regarding the three-sided interplay between television, shared memory and national identity in an age of globalisation.

To possess a culture, Tzevetan Todorov writes in his essay The Coexistence
of Cultures, means having at our disposal a prearrangement of the world, a
miniature model, a map of sorts which permits us to orient ourselves within it
(Todorov 1997: 3). Television programmes have, since their inception,
provided Todorovs miniature model, his map of sorts which permits
members of a nation to orient themselves. They are crucial in the formation,
maintenance and reection of national identity, linking a national audience to
a national experience and to a collective past.
Television is a cultural practice as well as a cultural institution. It is a
vehicle through which cultural forms are manifested. It is itself a signicant
site of a nations culture. More specically, television documentary, the
unique mode of representation which stands at the heart of this study, has


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been an essential construct through which recognisable symbolic forms,

narratives and languages in short, cultural representations that make up
the achievements of national identity have been beamed toward the public. I
contend that the creators of television documentaries should, therefore, be
counted among the signicant agents that full the role of interpreting the
nations past as a coherent and meaningful entity. Their function in the
interpretation of the past can be described as shaping historical events into a
meaningful narrative framework, based on shared symbolic systems, values
and memories that are reafrmed as they are represented. These representations provide the scaffolding for a shared (or contested) political, cultural and
social discourse the site of national identity.
In the following pages, I examine the extent to which the upheavals now
taking place within the television industry (notably the shift of the industry
from a national and mostly monopolised sector to an international and even a
global enterprise) give rise to new representations of shared memory. I pay
special attention to the manner in which these manifestations confront or
challenge narratives that have tended to be associated with Old TV. Focusing
on a television documentary co-produced by broadcasters from different
countries, I show how a global television product came into being and how
this product simultaneously emerged into three distinct national narratives.
Analysing the similarities and differences among the three national/cultural
broadcast versions, I argue that despite the considerable loosening of the ties
between nations and the television networks operating within them, television
producers are committed to adjusting their products to what they perceive to
be the specic shared memory of their national target audience.
Theorising the nation
In his seminal essay What is a Nation? ([1882] 1996: 52), Ernest Renan
dened the nation as a soul, a spiritual principle and immediately linked this
denition to the nations past and shared memories:
Two things, which, in truth, are really just one, make up this soul, this spiritual
principle. One is in the past, the other is in the present. One is the possession in
common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is current consent, the desire to live
together, the willingness to continue to maintain the values of the heritage that one has
received in an undivided form. (Renan 1996: 52 my italics)

Renans answer to the titular question of his essay is that it is the nations
common history and the contemporary commitment to this history that
forges a community. What Renan meant by a shared history is a story of the
past held in common, which he denes as a rich legacy of memories. The
nation, Renan argued, is bound together not by the past itself (what actually
happened) but by stories of that past that members in a national community
tell one another in the present (what they remember). Signicantly, Renan
added that the national community also agrees to forget, for the story of the

National identity in television documentaries


past is made both by holding on to some events and by letting go of others.

What the nation forgets and what it remembers make it the kind of nation
that it is.
Renans denition of the nation places national memory at the heart of
national identity. The stories of the nations past are kept alive in the present
in the mind of individuals narrated in written texts, performed on stage,
represented on screen, inscribed on monuments. It is available, in principle, to
every member in the community to refer to and draw upon as a basis for his/
her continuing understanding of what Renan called the willingness to
continue to maintain the values of the heritage that one has received in an
undivided form (Renan 1996: 52).
Renans pioneering conception of the nation as a community of shared
memory and shared forgetting was further developed by Anthony D. Smith
(1995 and 1999). For Smith, this joining of memory and nation rests on the
crucial interplay between numerous and disparate cultural elements shared by
most members of a given national community, capable of withstanding
hardship over time. Other critics have joined Smith in proposing that it is
in large part through shared memory that the nation produces and
reproduces itself. Duncan S. A. Bell (2003: 70) writes that memory
. . . demarcates the boundary between Them and Us, delineating the national self from
the foreign, alien Other. . . . [Memories] can (allegedly) be invented, acquired, and
established, although more often than not they assume a life-force of their own,
escaping the clutches of any individual group and becoming embedded in the very
fabric, material and psychological, of the nation.

This line of inquiry regarding the nationmemory nexus has been expanded
by the philosopher Avishai Margalit (2002). Margalit adds a signicant
dimension to the study of national remembering and forgetting by distinguishing between two types of collective memory: shared memory and
common memory. For Margalit, a common memory is an aggregate notion.
It brings together people all of whom remember a certain episode which each
of them has experienced. A shared memory, on the other hand, is not a simple
aggregate of individual memories; it requires communication. A shared
memory is a calibrated memory in the sense that it integrates the different
perspectives of those who remember the episode into a small number of
versions. In distinguishing between the two terms, common and shared
memory, Margalit points to a fundamental distinction regarding the notion of
collective memory: Unlike common memory (stored in the memory of many
individuals) which, in most cases is, involuntary, shared memory (calibrated
memory) is voluntary. This means that shared memory involves an active
process by which a story is preserved and retold. Margalit calls this a division
of mnemonic labor:
. . . shared memory in a modern society travels from person to person through
institutions, such as archives, and through communal mnemonic devices, such as
monuments and the names of streets. (Margalit 2002: 54)


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Margalits shared memory is very close to Renans rich legacy of memories.

According to Margalit, the task of supporting these mnemonic institutions is a
collective (national) one.
Margalits conceptualisation of the role played by national organisations
provides the basis for an analysis of the ways in which television as a
mnemonic device becomes instrumental in shaping and maintaining shared
(national) memory. To explore this issue, I place television within the broader
context of the role mass communication systems play in mediating memory.

Nationalism and shared memory in communication theory

In his book Nationalism and Social Communication (1966), Karl W. Deutsch
made a critical observation regarding the interplay between national identity,
memory and mass communication systems that remains pertinent for current
debate. For Deutsch, the ultimate exercise of national power relies upon the
relatively coherent and stable structure of memories, habits and values which
depends on existing facilities of social communication, both from the past to
the present and between contemporaries (1966: 75). Social communication is,
therefore, understood as an interactively sustained mode of being that
integrates a given people and provides it with singularity (Deutsch 1966: 978).
Deutschs theory has been further developed in the more recent work of
Benedict Anderson ([1983] 1991). Anderson, like Deutsch, takes mass
mediated communication to be of central importance in the formation of
national identity (and shared memory). He elucidates that it is precisely the
mass media that produce the requisite solidarity, through constant repetition
of images and words. By co-ordinating time and space, mass media (notably
the press) can address an imagined national community even before it has
developed into a full-edged nation-state. Andersons analysis adds a signicant new dimension to the study of the interplay between mass communication systems and national identity. However, like those before him, he
appears to neglect the ways in which the nation (and the nations past and
stories of this past) is represented and constructed in the media.
Michael Billig (1995) has attempted to ll this gap. In taking up Andersons
argument about imagined communities, he shows that in established nations
there is a constant agging of nationhood. Billig introduces the term banal
nationalism to cover all those unnoticed, routine practices, ideological values
and memories that make possible the daily reproduction of nations in the
established states of the West.
A signicant parallel may be traced between Billigs situating his banal
nationalism within the framework of ideology and Robins and Aksoys (2000)
positioning their term deep nation within a similarly ideological construct.
Writing about Turkish cinema culture, Robins and Aksoy (2000) are concerned with how the production, circulation and consumption of the moving
image is representative of the national collectivity. Working within the

National identity in television documentaries


boundaries of Turkey, they coined the term deep nation to cover the most
fundamental aspects or level of belonging in any group. . . the grounding for
what is imagined as the ontological nation, affording the energy and tenacity
that inform its act of imaginary closure (Robins and Aksoy 2000: 205). In
addressing the concept of deep nation, the critics were concerned with how it
is that a national community exists together and holds together. They pointed
to two binding mechanisms. First is the mechanism of repression, what Daniel
Sibony (1997) refers to as the groups point of silence, allowing its specic
national/cultural audience to become that collection of people who are resolved to stay silent about the same thing to protect that thing, and to protect
themselves from it by means of it (Sibony 1997: 248, cited in Robins and
Aksoy 2000: 205, Sibonys italics). This is the negative description of the
process: agreement on what will not be spoken. The second mechanism is the
positive valorisation of the group. It is this mechanism that ensures the conditions of possibility for the idealisation of the groups own self the uncontaminated ground on which it is possible to construct the ideal image of
the nation (Robins and Aksoy 2000: 206). Robins and Aksoys presentation
of the double mechanism of self-praise/consensual silence, and the role cinema
plays in this process, is an important precursor for my own discussion of the
role television plays in the construction of shared memory. We must begin,
however, by examining the nature of the bond between television and the

Television and the nation

Up until the 1980s, the strong bond between the nation and its television
industry was, in Western countries, undeniable (e.g. Barker 1997; Wieten et al.
2000). When television was rst introduced, the main carriers of broadcasting
were the airwaves, and television programmes were transmitted to the viewers
via aerials. Airwaves were and still are a national resource, and their owner is,
by denition, the nation-state. In such circumstances the scope for genuine
competition in supply was quite limited, and the natural method of payment
for service rendered was tax-based. The absence of a market mechanism
served as a justication for extensive regulation of programme content and
viewing times. These legal interventions imposed rules on programming and
strict controls on the broadcasting of foreign material on the national
channels. The television industry, therefore, was assigned and assumed a
dual role: to serve as a political public sphere of the nation-state and to act as
a locus for national culture (discussed in Morley and Robins 1995; Tracey
1998; Harrison and Woods 2001).
Since the mid-1980s, however, this relationship between the nation and the
television industry has increasingly come into question, as two fundamental
changes (one technological, one economic/political) have reshaped the television landscape (e.g. Thussu 2000; Parks and Kumar 2003). First is the arrival


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of cable and satellite distribution, and the convergence around digital

technology, which has shifted the television industry from a system centred
around national broadcasting regulated by the nation-state, to a transnational audio-visual industry selling lifestyle to consumers across the globe
(e.g. Chalaby and Segell 1999). Second is the impact of the movement from a
national to a trans-national system taking place in the wake of the worldwide
triumph of capitalism. This has fundamentally shifted the balance between
public and private enterprise in favour of the market both as a form of
economic organisation and a preferred criterion for judgments and success
(Murdock 1996).
These upheavals have led to the emergence of more channels available to
the viewing public, resulting in turn in growing competition among different
television providers. But by the same token, for the typical television network,
intensifying competition has meant smaller television audiences and higher
programming costs. This development has forced television producers to rethink the essential questions regarding the funding of television programmes.
In order to lower production costs, creators of programmes nd themselves
increasingly involved in international collaborations to make television
programmes. Within this changed landscape, international co-production
has become an ever more prevalent alternative-of-choice (Hoskins et al.
International co-productions
The term international co-production is used to describe a situation in which
broadcasters in more than one country are involved, both creatively and
nancially, in the production of a specic programme. This form of alliance
permits partners to pool resources in an effort to raise the substantial budgets
required to produce master copies at minimal cost and to accommodate a
plurality of markets (Hoskins et al. 1997). In contrast to various consumer
goods (such as soft drinks) as well as other cultural products (such as
computer games), co-produced television documentaries are jointly produced
by the different national co-players. As the producer Steven Seidenberg
wrote in a letter to the Israeli Forum for Co-Productions (March 2000): The
broadcaster puts up funds but simultaneously expects to have editorial input
into the project. Clearly, the rise in popularity of international co-productions bears heavily upon the question of televisions role in the construction of
national identity. The current scholarly discourse on this question is dominated by two opposing camps. One suggests that co-productions have led to
standardised products, with national attributes gradually withering away. For
example, Serra Tinic (2003: 174) writes:
In an effort to avoid the cultural discount, most international co-productions aim for a
form of universalism that homogenizes television content so that stories take place in
. . . a no-where land.

National identity in television documentaries


The other sees co-production as a tool for resisting globalisation, and pays
special attention to the manner in which this strategy may actually contribute
to the upholding of national culture (Jackel 2001).
It is essential to note that the research that has been pursued by the critics
reviewed here has based itself on major theoretical work in the globalisation
debate and has therefore been much inuenced by it. As this debate is
dominated by two contrasting approaches, media theorists have adopted a
dichotomous position as well: either claiming that the nation (and hence
national identity) is withering away through processes of globalisation (e.g.
King 1991; Ohmae 1995), or that the nation still functions as the primary
socio-political community and continues to foster a politics of identity (e.g.
Hutchinson and Smith 2000).

The globalisation debate: stating the dichotomy stance

The term globalisation has been invoked in the social sciences and humanities to express the sense of a growing interconnectedness between different
parts of the world and the increasing complexity of new forms of supranational interaction and interdependency (e.g. Thompson 1995).
This discourse is dominated by two opposing perspectives: supporters of the
globalisation thesis argue that contemporary changes are weakening the
nation-state and the salience of national identities. As Eric Hobsbawm
(1994: 15) puts it, national economies have become mere complications of
trans-national corporations. In cultural theory, they are imagined communities that are losing their hold on the imagination. In the words of Anthony
Giddens (2000: 8) the era of the nation-state is over. Within this approach we
can identify two main scholarly strands: the global culture strand and the
consumer society strand. Scholars who subscribe to the former argue that
processes of globalisation lead to the creation of a global culture. This version
of the post-national thesis starts from the notion of a global culture based on
electronic mass communications. The information society and the mass
communication systems have, it is claimed, created a condition for the
emergence of a global culture, one in which a single, cosmopolitan and
science-oriented culture encompasses the globe and gradually delegitimises
all the pre-existing ethnic and national cultures. In this view, the nation belongs
to a Romantic age and to the epoch of Modernisation. Hence, in an age of
mass communications, national cultures are no longer relevant (Castells 1996).
The second strand is the consumer society approach. This version of the
globalisation thesis emphasises the concept of mass consumerism. The
consumer society theorists (e.g. Sklair 1995) direct attention to the mass
production of commodities by global corporations and to the growing
standardisation of consumption patterns wherever living standards permit
the purchase of Western goods and services. According to this thesis, the
massive ow of capital across national boundaries makes national institutions


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and organisations increasingly powerless and hence irrelevant. For the

consumer society theorists, the signicant effect of the decline of the nationstate is the bypassing of national cultures. In this view, cultural imperialism
erodes the differences in national cultures, reducing them to mere packaging.
This two-part globalisation thesis has been rejected by many critics. These
theorists ag important a priori positions concerning the role of the nation
and the salience of national specicities, which are underplayed by globalisation theorists (e.g. Smith 1995; Hutchinson and Smith 2000). First, they claim
that while new communication technologies may facilitate the compression of
time and space by reducing the costs of mobility across physical space, the
extent and forms of any extended globalisation (or any other new social
space) will be shaped by particular (national) congurations of economic,
political and cultural processes. In other words, even if national boundaries
have become more uid in recent decades, mass communications have not
rendered geopolitical borders obsolete or diminished the regulatory control of
the nation-state (Preston and Kerr 2001). Second, globalisation processes,
facilitated by new communication and transportation technologies, do not
necessarily imply a singular homogenisation of socio-economic or cultural
space. Cultural productions and reproductions are organised and by-and-large
controlled by national governments and are adapted to the particular tastes of
national communities. Even when adopting Western goods and lifestyles, state
elites resist cultural imperialism and seek to cultivate their own cultural
practices and strive for national cultural autonomy (Park and Curran 2000).
It is quite clear that both approaches provide reasonable evidence in
support of their opposing claims about the effects of processes of globalisation on the persistence of national identity. One is thus led to ask how the two
views may be reconciled or integrated. In particular, we need to account for
the dialectic between the two conceptual frameworks described above, which
implies a need to look beyond their specic deterministic approaches. What
must be asked is how a global product emerges (as per the rst approach) and
how, simultaneously, this very product becomes instrumental in the upholding of specic national narratives (as per the second approach). In order to
elaborate this point, I propose to shift the current discussion from the
question of how the nation is being transformed through processes of
globalisation to the question of how nations, themselves, are being produced
and reproduced in terms of global artefacts. This shift is necessary because of
a common assumption that underlies much of the debate on globalisation,
namely that globalisation is marked by processes of deterritorialisation that
transcend or destabilise the territorial boundaries of the modern nation-state
(e.g. Morley and Robins 1995; Appadurai 1996). These arguments often
assume that the global (or geographically speaking, the globe) encompasses
the national (the territorially bounded nation-state) and must therefore, by
denition, be marked by cultural, economic and political processes which
transcend the national into the post-national (Meyrowitz 1985; Appadurai
1996). By focusing on territory or place, this approach disregards the

National identity in television documentaries


growing cultural irrelevancy of physical location in the global era. By

emphasising the centrality of place, these studies lose sight of one of the
major effects of globalisation, namely the blurring of physical space. A
fundamental aspect of globalisation is lost, namely the interplay between
the global and the national, an interplay which occurs at no specic locality.
I shall discuss these issues within the specic context of television production, examining the strategy known as international co-production. Analysing
the contents of a co-produced television documentary, I demonstrate how a
national programme can arise, and be reproduced, in what is fundamentally a
global product. Indeed, I would argue that although the television industry is
becoming global, the production of programmes is still strongly inuenced by
factors of national belonging.
This claim will be made here through a detailed analysis of a specic
television documentary entitled The Fifty Years War which was co-produced
by three television networks: BBC, WGBH Boston (PBS) and MBC. To make
this programme possible, funding from three separate television networks was
secured, with each funding source given the right to use the produced footage
to construct its own version of the nal product. The completed series thus
exists in three distinct versions, British (BBC2), American (WGBH Boston)
and Middle-Eastern (MBC), where each version offers a different reading of
the historical events depicted.
In the remainder of this article I offer a close reading of the similarities and
differences among the three broadcast texts, illustrating how three national
narratives emerged from this seemingly global product.
Drawing on solid work by prominent narrative theorists, notably Propp
(1968) and Todorov (1981), as well as on critical writings in the eld of
nationalism (e.g. Smith 2000), I was able to identify several elements that
could be associated with known conventions for portraying the national
narrative in audio-visual narratives.
1. The actors: Who are they and what is their relevance to the national
2. The roles: Who are the heroes and who are the villains (Propp 1968)? Who
are each nations friends and enemies?
3. Place/location: Which places are depicted and what is their relevance to the
nations history and rich legacy of memories (Renan 1996)?
4. Plot/story (time/issues/themes): At which historical moment does the story
begin and end, and how do such moments relate to the nations heritage?
Which historical events will be acknowledged, and which will be consigned
to oblivion?
5. Language: What is the language in use and what is its relevance to the
national experience?
Admittedly, this categorisation is a rough pigeonholing exercise, but one
which nonetheless enables us to see the interplay between national perception and
televised representation in the co-produced documentary under investigation.


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Analysing the documentary The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs
The television documentary The Fifty Years War (1998) was initiated by the
BBC. Michael Jackson, BBC2s controller, approached Brian Lapping
Associates, a London-based independent production company, to produce
the series. The BBC, however, was reluctant to commission such a high-cost
project by itself and so it prevailed on the Lapping Associates to line up
foreign broadcasters to join the production team and to share its costs.
Lapping Associates succeeded in securing the American television network
WGBH Boston as a partner. The two networks (BBC and WGBH Boston)
signed a co-production agreement with Lapping which gave the channel
operators full say in editorial decisions and granted them complete control
over the nal product. Toward the nal stages of the production, the
commercial Arab television network MBC was approached by Brian Lapping
with an offer to buy into the nal product. MBC agreed to purchase the
programme, on condition of being granted the right to re-edit the series and
construct its own version. At the end of this process, the nal product(s) came
to exist in different versions that share many common features. Each version
enjoys a life of its own, independently of the others, and more importantly it
enjoys absolute exclusivity in its own national domain.
The title
The title, The Fifty Years War, was suggested by Brian Lapping, who
produced the series for all three networks. In a book which accompanied
the series, Lapping wrote:
When I suggested the title The Fifty Years War for the television series . . . I was of
course referring back to the Hundred Years War that ravaged Europe in the 14th and
15th centuries.(Brian Lapping in Bregman and El-Tahri 1998: 13)

It is quite apparent that this British producer, who was hired by the two coproduction agents, implicitly targeted the networks viewers as Europeans and
therefore made reference to a Euro-Christian heritage. There is an implicit
message in this title regarding the signicance of a conict taking place in a
far-away region (the Middle East), whose resemblance to Europe and its
Christian wars thus renders it more familiar and therefore more relevant. It
should come as no surprise that the British and the American commissioning
editors readily adopted Lappings suggestion, while the commissioning editor
of the Arabic version (who signed on to the co-production agreement at a
later stage) rejected it. The producers of the Arab MBC version opted for the
title Israel and the Arabs: Fifty Years of Conict, thus directing their audience
(the Arabs) to the main actors in what for them is an ongoing conict, namely
the Israelis (them) and the Arabs (us). Furthermore, in replacing the word
war with the word conict, the producers of the Arab version highlighted
the fact that at the time of transmission (the year 1998), Israel and the Arabs

National identity in television documentaries


were not in a state of war.1 In both cases, the title was used as a technique to
draw a specically targeted audiences attention to a familiar arena, by
highlighting assumed shared concerns and local knowledge.

The language
A voice-of-authority commentary was used in all three versions. This
technique, as described by Michael Rabiger (1992), is widely used in television
documentaries because it can rapidly and effectively introduce new characters,
summarise intervening developments and give a concise version of new facts.
Narration can also prepare the viewer to notice aspects of an upcoming
situation (Rabiger 1992: 2356). It is quite evident that while adopting the
narration technique, each producer opted for a different language. The
British commissioning editor hired a British-English speaker. The American
preferred an American narrator, while the Arab producer favoured an Arabic
speaker. This decision is particularly signicant because a common language
is critical in dening (demarcating the boundaries of) collective identity
groups, especially of nations. Moreover, the commissioning editors of
both the American and the Arabic versions dubbed interviewees who spoke
in a foreign language (the Arab producer dubbed the English and Hebrew
speakers, and the American dubbed the Hebrew and Arabic speakers). It
cannot be ignored that the dubbing technique created a dominant voice
(language) which situated the lm in a particular national context. What I
wish to stress here is that the Americans, who could have made do with the
British-English narration, insisted on hiring an American narrator, despite the
fact that this would and did increase the cost of production.

Throughout all three national/cultural versions of the series, the players/
actors in the story are clear and identical: the Jews (later, the Israelis), the
Arabs, the British, the Americans, the Russians and the international
community (usually referring to the UN). All of the above players break
down into subsidiary players; for example, the Israelis become Israeli troops,
the Arabs are Palestinians, the British are referred to as the British rulers,
His Majesty, etc. The Americans are America or the American administration, to name but a few designations. The players are the dramatis
personae of the story, with the central duo, Israel and the Arabs. The
arrangement of these characters would be clear even to someone who had no
inkling as to the story, both because of the title of the series and because of
the repetitive narrative focus on these two players. The signicance of the
lesser players varies and shifts from version to version. The Russians and the
international community, for example, feature more prominently in the
American version while the British are most prominent in the British version.


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The roles assumed by the players differ pronouncedly from version to

version. Though each version must assign the generic roles of hero, aggressor,
defender, victim and helper, it is clear that different players wear the masks of
these roles in the three different national/cultural versions. Here is where the
mask/role of the Other is situated, and here as well is where issues and
dynamics of power come to the fore. It is this power of the mask/role, of both
the Other and the us/we that is critical for my exploration of the way
national identity issues continually play themselves out.
The explication of my broad conclusions here will nd its substantiation in
the following close reading of the rst sequence2 of the documentary series
under investigation.
A close reading of the opening sequence of the three broadcast texts3
The BBC version
The opening sequence of the BBC version begins with the caption 1947
superimposed on a view of the Wailing Wall of the old city of Jerusalem (with
Jews praying at it) and Davids Citadel. Over this image, the entire frame is
lled with writing in Hebrew and Arabic script.
The designation of the year makes clear that in this version, the Arab
Israeli conict began fty years before the lm was transmitted. The following
frame and the voice-of-authority narration introduce the main players/actors
in the story (the Jews and the Arabs) and the main conict (both peoples
claims for rights over a particular territory Palestine).
To the Jews, Palestine is the traditional and spiritual home, the promised land. But the
majority of the inhabitants in Palestine are Arabs. They, too, regard Palestine as their
rightful home.

My reading of this British voice-of-authority situates the Jewish claim for

their homeland in Palestine as historical (traditional), and inextricably
connected to their ancient religion (spiritual home, the promised land).
The Arab claim is situated rst of all in a presentation of demographics
(the majority of the inhabitants in Palestine are Arabs), and, as strongly, in a
presentation of locus of habitat: they are literally the inhabitants of the land.
Both claims are reinforced by a dissolve from the image of the two Jerusalem
landmarks (the Wall with its devout, praying, and the Citadel both reading
Jewish Jerusalem) to a shot of an Arab-populated Jerusalem present in the
roadways around the Wall and Citadel. Arabs and Jews are equally present in
the space/the frame. Further, the British immediately set up the Otherness of
these two populations by presenting them in indigenous garb. They are
Other to each other, as well as to us (as British). Using the name Palestine
to describe the geography on which soil the conict will be acted out, the BBC
opts out of the many other designations used for this site: Zion, the Holy
Land, and the Land of Israel. Each term carries the weight of clear political
associations and allegiances. In these opening moments of the rst pro-

National identity in television documentaries


gramme, the BBCs choice of Palestine clearly sets the series not only within
the Palestinian camp, but also within the contemporary discourse of the
Israeli/Arab conict.
. . . but with the end of the war, into Palestines port came ship after ship of illegal
immigrants, refugees from recent persecution in Germany, Austria, Poland, Belsen and
Dachau. The Arabs fear of becoming a minority pressured the British to limit the
Jewish immigration. Jewish extremists attacked British troops, wrecked government
buildings, blew up trains and ships.

The word but in the beginning of this narrative segment marks a critical
moment in the opening narrative. It is the arrival of Jews from a devastated
Europe in the aftermath of World War II that will destroy the balance and
provoke what the voice-of-authority calls the Arabs fear of becoming a
minority. These illegal immigrants, a designation made by the British
Mandatory government at the time (and here used to subtly but decisively
introduce we/us/Britain/Britishness into the BBC programme in a foregrounded position), will now be shown to not only out a legal justice (and
therefore just) system, but will be portrayed as the instigators of violence as
well. The voice-of-authority continues: Jewish extremists attacked British
troops, wrecked government buildings, blew up trains and ships. Here, the
British actors move to centre stage, instantly promoted to signicant players
in the story now themselves victims of the targeted attacks by violent
Jews. This was intended to activate an Arabs-and-British-against-the-Israelis
script in the minds of British viewers, an attitude again consistent with
contemporary British discourse about the political situation in the Middle
East. For, as Eddie Mirzoeff, the producer of the BBC version, said:
There has been a degree of passionate support, at one time strongly for Israel, at
another time more recently for the Palestinians. (Eddie Mirzoeff, personal interview,
February 2003, my emphasis)

I continue to highlight the two-part issue of shared memory and shared

forgetting, which I discussed earlier. In the opening segment, the British
producer chooses to let lie the wider historical context of the conict; namely,
why the British were in Palestine in the rst place.
The opening musical theme now announces the beginning of the programme (and of the series as a whole). The title The Fifty Years War: Israel
and the Arabs appears for the rst time, as still images of iconic places and
persons are rhythmically collaged onto different parts of the frame: David
Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Anwar Sadat, etc. These images are covered over
with a blurry written text in both Hebrew and Arabic, echoing the writing in
the rst frame of the Wailing Wall and the Citadel. The letters of both
languages reinforce the sense of two peoples, while succeeding in widening the
scope of the conict from one of geography to a much more broadly based
cultural (linguistic) site: Diaspora Jews aligned with Israelis against an entire
Arab cultural world.


Tamar Ashuri

An old and impressive tree lls the foreground of the next frame, rising on
a sandy slope with desert hills in the background. This image, a photograph, is
reminiscent of canonical nineteenth century images painted by travellers to
the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims would evoke a Biblical Israel, and the
visual referent works to arouse devout sentiments for a Christian viewing
public. The conict takes place in a far-away region, the strategy of the
lmmakers says, but its Christian holiness can render it more familiar,
evocative and therefore relevant. The landscape is motionless, but suggests
hazard: the tree is dark and bent, and a shadow lls the bottom third of the
landscape, traditionally reserved for refuge in landscape painting. The voiceover voice-of-authority narration underscores the portending danger:
Palestine one land, two peoples.
Fifty years ago, the British rulers washed their hands of Palestine. The Jews saw their
chance to declare their own state the Arabs were determined to stop them.

Here, again, is the lms central conict: two peoples claim for political rights
over one land; and, in this BBC version, the positioning of the British at the
centre the moment of the end of the British Mandate, the centrality of Britain
in the conict (the Arabs and the Jews are mentioned only in the third
sentence). Yet while Britain remains central and signicant, it is presented as
passive, and in fact, on the way out: the British rulers washed their hands of
Palestine. The Jews, on the other hand, continue to be active, even
opportunistic: the Jews saw their chance. Moving from being inhabitants,
the Arabs are now becoming resistors: the Arabs were determined to stop
them. Here, again, while underscoring the role that the British Empire played
in this conict, the BBC chooses to ignore the wider historical context of
British involvement in the region. No further description is provided as to why
the British washed their hands of Palestine.
The PBS version
The PBS version begins with what is easily recognisable to all its American
audiences as a PBS opening:
Funding for The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs was provided by the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers like you.

This slogan, which precedes the opening of all PBS programmes, is more than
an acknowledgement of nancial support received. It strongly positions its
audience of viewers as participants in the public broadcasting system. Since
this series (like all PBSs programmes) is accessible within the geopolitical
borders of the United States (PBS has transmission rights only in North
America), the slogan targets a specic group, namely Americans. The use of
this slogan and the message it conveys project a strong connection between
the series and its audience: this programme was made for American citizens,
was funded by the American public (tax or voluntary contribution) and has
been designed with you, the nation, in mind.

National identity in television documentaries


The image of the tree in the desert appears as in the British version. The
American producer makes no mention of the year 1947 nor does he nd it
necessary to make reference to any specic point in time. The PBS commentary presents the conict between Israel and the Arabs as timeless:
Palestine a land divided.
A holy place. A battleground.
A homeland claimed by Arabs and Jews.

And so, a conict between two nations over one land, a specic place,
Palestine, then becomes the subject of the three sentences that follow. In using
the image of the tree, the PBS producer (like his British collaborator) makes
similar reference to Christian Holy Land iconography, and the evocation of
emotion is reinforced by the phrase a holy place (the latter a phrase inclusive
of Jews as well). Furthermore, by using the term holy place, the American
producer is framing the conict as an ideological/religious struggle between
Israelis-cum-Jews and Arabs-cum-Muslims. What is striking here, however, is
that the Americans have situated Arabs and Jews as equal under the homeland claim, a homeland claimed by Arabs and Jews. There is no power
positioning here, as exists in the British version, no arguments made at this
stage for one side or the other. Legitimacy and rights are positioned as equal.
The opening clip now appears, the same used in the British version: the
series title, the iconic places and persons, the written text in both Hebrew and
Arabic. The voice-of-authority narrative speaks:
By 1947 the lines were drawn.

The transitivity of the language in this commentary downplays the role of

specic players in the conict. We are not told who drew the line or why. In
contrast to the British version (foregrounding the nal days of the British
mandate), no information is given regarding the historical origins of the
conict, nor why the year 1947 was chosen to mark the beginning of this
historical event. To the Jews, Palestine is the traditional and spiritual home.
The voice-of-authority narrative here continues exactly as in the British
The American producer, however, in contrast to his British colleague,
superimposes the words British newsreel on the newsreel clip which runs
under the narrative voice. A single sentence of narrative text quickly follows:
Great Britain had ruled Palestine for three decades (a sentence notably
absent in the British version). It is in this way that the Americans identify
Britain as a serious player in the conict, and even at this early stage in the sixpart programme, as a signicant contender for agency and responsibility for
the conicts escalation. Lord Cadogan announces Britains decision to
withdraw from Palestine:
After years of strenuous but unavailing efforts, His Majestys government has reached
the conclusion that they are not able to bring about a settlement in Palestine based on
the consent of both Arabs and Jews, and that the Mandate is no longer workable.


Tamar Ashuri

The most prominent aspects of the American version, as I move to a

comparison mode, are: the upfront presence of the British, situated as prime
candidates for bearing responsibility for the conict (due to their presence as a
colonial power in the region); the conict itself is ideological/religious; and
both Arabs and Jews are equal contenders at this stage of the programme.
The MBC version4
The producer of the MBC version opted for an entirely different beginning,
that of the BBC Master Film: a close-up of the Dome of the Rock, a
Jerusalem mosque built in the seventh century and a dominant symbol of
Islam and the Muslim presence in Palestine. The commentary accompanying
this image a contemporary photograph of the Dome of the Rock in colour,
gradually dissolving into a black-and-white archival frame of the same site
serves to strengthen the ancient Muslim presence in the Holy Land. To this,
the voice-of-authority narration adds the British Mandate presence, and the
older, Arab-linked Ottoman regime.
Palestine: A land in dispute between Arabs and Jews, a dispute which has been going
on for more than fty years. In 1917, Britain was granted the mandate over Palestine,
following the collapse of the Ottoman regime.

The message here is clear. MBC is saying: We have been here longer than any
of you. Our current claim for Jerusalem is historically sound. You British
came, and we were here. You British left, and we are still here. And it is
immaterial to us whether or where you Americans may decide to draw any
line whatsoever.
As for the two-part issue of shared memory and shared forgetting, in
contrast to the British and American versions, the producers of the Arab lm
do not mention any historical Jewish presence in Palestine at all, nor do they
mention any Jewish religious or other afliation to Palestine. Over the British
newsreel images of Jews at the Wailing Wall, Davids Citadel and Arabs lling
the streets used in both the BBC and PBS versions the MBC version offers
the following commentary:
The British had promised the Jews a Jewish state in Palestine. The numbers of Jewish
immigrants to Palestine began to increase. The British promised the Arab inhabitants
that they would maintain their rights. But due to the Second World War, British
control started to become challenged by the Jews arriving from Europe and escaping
from Nazi oppression and the concentrations camps. The Palestinians started to feel
the danger.

This voice-of-authority narrative clearly situates the British as bearers of

enormous responsibility for the conict, as well as helpers to the Jews. Having
staked out this dynamic, the MBC team now insert a striking archival
moving-image segment of British police beating Arabs in a Palestinian street
scene. What the visual indicates is that the British [who] had promised the
Jews a Jewish state in Palestine would not be averse to hitting Arab civilians
in order to promote this end. Such an image works to establish what is an

National identity in television documentaries


early aim of the MBC version the Arabs as victims versus the Jews and the
British as active aggressors. This script, in the view of MBCs contemporary
audience of Arab viewers, would be consistent with current Arab discourse on
the political situation in what is referred to as the occupied territories. I want
to stress here that in contrast to the American version, which framed the
conict as ideological/religious, the MBC version presents the conict as a
political struggle. This is reinforced by the use of the term Palestinians to
describe the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, a term which is, again, consistent
with discourse regarding the Palestinian struggle for nationhood today.
In the three opening segments, stark differences emerge. Although the same
players are introduced, although many moving images are repeated, and
although the site of the conict is clearly identied in the same place, within as
little as two minutes of television time a striking repositioning of roles and
assignment of responsibility are sharply set into focus.
Earlier, I cited Ernest Renan ([1882] 1996), Karl Deutsch (1966) and Anthony
D. Smith (1999) in situating the nation as a community of shared memory and
shared forgetting. In his study Images of the Nation: Cinema, Art and
National Identity (2000), Smith addresses this issue even more pointedly in
relation to lm, and draws a signicant conclusion:
In all historical lms as well as in the texts from which they stem, the sequence of events
provides the essential framework, not for a detached and truthful account of wie es
eigentlich war, but to convince the spectator of the epic grandeur of the nation, that is
to say, in the rst place, his or her nation. (Smith 2000: 52)

What on the face of it seems to be, for the British and the Americans, the
telling of the story of two Others (Arabs and Israelis) in a far-away, foreign
place, is in effect a move to tell the story of themselves us and we. Clearly,
when the Arab side (MBC) joins the production at a later stage, they are
joining in order to tell the story of themselves.
The rst bold aspect of this telling of my nation is that the representational means employed, both visual and narrative, will be clearly readable by
ones own nation/public, will strongly resonate for that public, and will create
a sense of feeling at home for that citizenry (Billig 1995: 126). The producers
themselves are full participating members of this nation/culture, embedded
citizens within the citizenship of what they can rightfully call my nation.
The choices made by the producers have been set in place to delineate just
those loci of which the nation is proud, and to minimise or eliminate entirely
those which national shared memory wishes to effectively make disappear.
For, as the historian Ernest Renan (1996: 45) writes, Forgetting . . . is a
crucial factor in the creation of a nation. Thus, each edited version in its way
exhibits what Daniel Sibony (1997) refers to as the groups point of silence,
allowing its specic national/cultural audience to become that collection of


Tamar Ashuri

people who are resolved to stay silent about the same thing to protect that thing,
and to protect themselves from it by means of it (Sibony 1997: 248, cited in
Robins and Aksoy 2000: 205, Sibonys italics). The following is the negative
description of that process: agreement on what will not be spoken. Each
version also performs the defence of another mechanism valorisation
allowing its specic national/cultural audience to imagine itself as a collective
that is worth belonging to (Robins and Aksoy 2000: 206). The British, by
playing down their role as the Mandatory power in Palestine, minimising the
full impact of their sudden departure and their active participation in the
conict once it had erupted, allow themselves to emerge as a neutral, objective
and benign power. This objectivity is meant to be taken as a critical eye
observing from a sufcient distance to provide a just, valid and therefore
valuable narrative account. The Americans highlight their role as the worlds
greatest power, while downplaying their role as active supporters of the
aggressive Israelis. Emphasising their position as helper to all sides, they
work to emerge, as in the case of the British, as objective, knowledgeable and
wise. The Arabs emphasised their complex role as victims/resisters while
marginalising their role as aggressors.
All of these strategies employed by the three production agents clearly
move toward what Anthony D. Smith (2000: 52) describes as provid[ing] the
essential framework, not for a detached and truthful account of wie es
eigentlich war, but to convince the spectator of the epic grandeur of his/her
nation. Even if we rarely venture into the sphere of Smiths epic grandeur,
we are very much in the territory of wie es eigentlich war, the problematised
site of the telling of truth in history.
The above comparative reading of the three national/cultural versions of
the documentary The Fifty Years War exemplies how similar footage is used
to create diverse stories. Television documentaries, it is suggested, can be
viewed as frames that make sense and produce meaning conceivably only
within particular cultural boundaries. Stories of the past, which television
producers tell to their imagined (national) audiences in the present, to be
meaningful may not be global. The heightened sense of belonging is essential
to their project and must always frame the nation.
1 Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1978 and with Jordan in 1994.
2 The decision to limit my analysis to the rst sequence of the documentary has to do with the
fact that a full analysis of the complete series would result in considerable repetition, due to
overlaps in the ways in which the ArabIsraeli conict was constructed across programmes. More
signicantly, the rst sequence has an analytical implication it is seen here as a frame for the
series as a whole. It draws the audiences attention to particular events, actors and points in time.
It thus plays a signicant role in the processes of decoding the televised text.
3 In this study I employed the textual analysis approach to media artifacts. I wanted to tease
out those determining but hidden assumptions which in their unique ordering remain opaque to
quantitative content analysis. Central to this analysis is an application of the researchers own

National identity in television documentaries


reading (e.g. Gitlin 1980). Given this limitation, I have tried to provide a rigorous analysis of the
material under investigation, by providing a detailed description of the different elements in the
text (image, music, narration), and by indicating why my reading of the material seems the most
plausible way of understanding it.
4 The MBC version was translated from Arabic to English for this study.

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