Top of the Docs #43 – Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be looking at documentaries that chart our history.

It is almost impossible to think of plane hijackings without thinking of the tragedy that befell New York on September 11th, 2001, perhaps the defining image of the 21st century so far. However, plane hijackings have a longer past than this, and before the influence of 9/11 was able to cloud its conclusions, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y came along to explore that history.

Released in 1997, Johan Grimonprez’s film explores plane hijackings almost as a cultural phenomenon, stretching back from the 1960s right up until his contemporary moment. The format of the film is rather unusual, based on a fictional dialogue between a terrorist and a novelist, with the idea being that they are almost playing a game – “what the terrorists gain, novelists lose.”

We see the perception of hijackers change from the 1960s where they are seen as revolutionaries – keeping within the spirit of political upheaval we associate with the decade. Hijackers here are almost romantic figures, and the focus of the media was less on their action and more on them as agents of counterculture, regardless of how despicable their political agendas may have been. This was a strange new way for insurgents to gain coverage, as well as catching the public’s interest, which in turn led to a profit for the media. These revolutionary figures were almost like characters to the media, their actions and goals aestheticized to bring in new readers and viewers.

dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y shows that through media interest, the pursuit of spectacle arose. As hijackings gained more coverage, they became more deadly, the political agents responsible for them becoming less and less part of the picture, and the unbelievable nature in which events unfolded became the focus. To put it bluntly, hijackings were being hijacked by the media, and it was leading us down a dangerous path where terrorist organisations were willing to go further and further to gain coverage. The media allowed hijackings to become the flavour of the week, and the tragedy is that dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y caught all of this years before we would see the culmination of this callous misrepresentation.

Perhaps one of the most interesting historical documentaries out there, partly due the time of its making – unable to capture the moment that would define it – Grimonprez’s film dutifully captures the danger of a media more desperate for capital than journalism. There are of course many more famous examples of this, with some even playing out in the news right now, however, what dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y conveys is that this is something the media have always done, adapting format to the tastes of its readership. Artistic, fascinating, and desperately prescient, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y  is a vital film in terms of understanding not only the history of hijackings, but a history of the media’s failings.

Trailer for dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y

Header image courtesy of Johan Grimonprez, Photography by Rony Vissers