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The Ethics of Historical Fiction

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 6, 2021

I'm happy to say that lately there has been an effort to revive Greek cinema. More new scripts are getting attention and thematology diversifies into thrillers, historical fiction, suspense and even horror as opposed to the age-old sitcom moat that was Greek TV.

One such movie that I had had great hopes for is Echoes of the Past or “Kalavryta 1943” as is the Greek version of the title. It is a historical fiction on the very real and gruesome massacre of the village of Kalavryta by the nazis in 1943. Of which there is still an eyewitness survivor alive over here, and several offspring of others that have passed on.

The story has sparked great controversy in Greece because of a single scene: that of an Austrian nazi disobeying orders of his superiors and opening the village church doors to free women and children before the church burnt down with them. This is a false account, debunked and decried by all survivors of the massacre and propagated by the collaborationist government of the time and later post-war governments in an effort for ‘reconciliation’. I won't go into this more in the article, but needless to say the survivors of Kalavryta have never accepted this myth. They all say that there had been no act of mercy from anyone in the nazi troops that day.

They are also threatening to sue the movie, because the writers and director had met with the villagers and the one survivor that is still alive. During those meetings they had made sure to let the creators know the story was a myth and that it would be an affront to those fallen if it were included. At the time, allegedly, the creators agreed not to include the scene…

…only they apparently did, and it's in the trailer of the movie. The people of Kalavryta feel insulted, and have said so very vocally. On the other hand, the creators of the movie claim that they made no promises, and made sure to call the movie ‘historical fiction’ and opted to include the myth in order to “demonstrate that even in the darkest of hours, there can be a shred of humanity found”.

Only the truth is that in that particular moment, on that dreadful day, there had been none found.

As a creator and a scriptwriter myself I totally get why the creators included the myth: it's hard to not counter balance abject cruelty with some token of redemption of human nature at least. It's also harder to sell to audiences that may feel insulted or might assume they are watching a biased account- when things are that level of grotesque the human mind naturally tries to deny it as exaggeration.

But on the other hand, when people who were there and suffered are going to see the work, and are going to see that shred of humanity they never got to experience, with everything this is going to do to them psychologically, I feel a creator simply has no right to do it, even if they call the movie ‘fiction’.

There have been other occasions where nazi soldiers did show humanity for real in the dark history of the WWII Occupation of Greece. Powerful stories that can totally achieve the message sought after without distorting reality or rewriting history. Interesting ones, offering themselves to movie making easily.

So I don't like it that the creators just flipped off these people for the sake of creative liberties or a narrative they want to push forward despite everything. I feel like it's heartless and callus, and, in the end, unethical.

Historical fiction should be true to the history it seeks to depict. When actual events are portrayed, historical fiction is obliged to portray them truthfully, or it ceases to be historical anymore and is just fiction. Historical fiction is often a learning tool. People get acquainted with unknown facets of history through movies, and aren't guaranteed they will research further on their own or even have access to the true accounts. The obligation of the creator, therefore, is to be exact either in essence or in events. Even when omitting events or fusing events, no concession should be done which would reverse important elements of the history- and the fact that there had been no mercy shown on that day is important not only for then, but for the now, too.

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PaulEberhardt at 2:23AM, Nov. 8, 2021

If I were to dabble in historical fiction in a serious way, I'd always try to make abundantly clear that my narrator is highly unreliable - in the example of this WW2 atrocity that could be a traumatised victim who can't believe the cruelty he/she witnessed, or perhaps one of the bad guys trying to pull his head from the noose in a Nuremberg trial or perhaps someone bullied by the collaborationist government. That way the myth could be included as a flashback and immediately debunked. This said, that approach would probably cause some controversy of its own. I know why I keep my hands off this sort of thing. I liked the Letters from Iwo Jima / Flags of our Fathers - approach, though. That's the first and last time I know of that anyone really managed to give a historical event a fair treatment - of course the project didn't sell properly, because if it doesn't piss people off properly they won't give you free advertising by telling everyone how outraged they are...

PaulEberhardt at 1:57AM, Nov. 8, 2021

Every retelling of history is always an interpretation of history, that's one thing. That's why people who know that will pay very close attention to the way you present people, places and events. The script writers had a problem that may be typical for historical fiction for all I know: while this one account is proven to be a myth it's apparently a very popular myth, meaning that people will expect it and it has to be addressed in some way. Also, it arguably akes a better plot than reality did. The second thing is that I would replace the "stick to the facts" part with "research as well as you can". There is always the chance for somebody to find some new aspect - perhaps the film prompts them to get great-grandpa's frontline letters to great-grandma from the attic... All this is why historical fiction is a genre I tend to avoid. I sometimes can't resist making fun of some historical events or persons in my comic, but I'd never call that historical fiction.

EssayBee at 9:37PM, Nov. 6, 2021

Honoring the past without letting it get in the way of a good yarn is a fine tightrope historical fiction has to walk. One of the benefits of historical fiction books is that they can include notes to point out the liberties taken with actual history or to point out points of argument. I always enjoy the Historical Notes in the historical fiction books by Bernard Cornwell. He lays out the actual history and the licenses he took with it for the sake of the story (or the time-bending that would be necessary for a character to be in one place and then another in such short time). Movies usually don't get such a chance, and their narratives are generally skewed toward a specific story/point of view, whether it be accounts of events or biopics. So "historical" movies should almost always be taken with not just a grain of salt, but enough salt to raise your blood pressure (as they seem to do with actual historians).

IronHorseComics at 5:57AM, Nov. 6, 2021

Always get your agreements in writing. Verbal agreements don't hold up in a court of law, it's like using hearsay and speculation as evidence. As for the movie makers, I wonder how much of that vile change was a studio mandate to appease whoever was funding the movie for sponsorship.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:35AM, Nov. 6, 2021

Like if you're up front doing a alternate history kind of work of fiction, that's a different matter. But when you're selling it like "this is as it happened, right here, at this point in time" that's when you need to be real about it my opinion.

MOrgan at 1:21AM, Nov. 6, 2021

If they wanted to include the myth they should have changed the name of the village it happened to.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:14AM, Nov. 6, 2021

I agree with everything written here. Dark, unforgiving reality is tough for us all to digest, true, but we should never lie to ourselves about it, never try to blur the lines between what is real and what is myth. In these times especially as we're seeing the rise of a post-truth society, where more people are starting to embrace their unfounded narratives as gospel truths, creators of historical or factual fiction needs to stick to truth as it really is, or was, now more then ever. It reminds me of a commentary video the now deceased author Harlan Ellison did for the Sci fi channel long ago where he talked about this sort of thing. Here's the link to a Youtube clip of that for anyone who's interested of what he had say about it

bravo1102 at 12:47AM, Nov. 6, 2021

Simple. Take away the specific title. It's not about the one specific atrocity but a fictional story of a massacre like Come And See. Not one particular incident but all incidents.

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