A century after World War I, the French Ministry of Education asked for submissions to fund digital-born projects whose aim was to raise awareness and educate students about the everyday life during the war. The State was facing a progressive decrease in interest in the Archives and then decided to digitize most of their items so that they were available online for private and public consumption.
One of the “happy few” chosen project is called Plateforme 14/18. The concept is original because the reader follows day by day the correspondence of six family members during the four years of war. The authors of these letters were the Resal family. Thanks to the familial efforts over the years to carefully archive their personal documents, their stories found a new life in this digital initiative today.
The Resal family’s background is actually interesting for several reasons. First, Eugene and Julie, the father and mother, made the daring choice to call the first four of their six children who were born in colonial Tunisia by Arabic names – Meriem, Salem, Younes and Cherifa. The last two were born in Metropolitan France and were named with the standard French names, Paul and Louis. This imaginary bi-cultural French bourgeoise family became a wonderful symbol of the linkage between Metropolitan France and its former colonies.
Second, the close-knit family exchanged a bit more than 3500 letters and 300 pictures during the Great War. Fortunately, each and every member owned a camera. The four men documented their everyday life on the battlefield and sent home their photo films to be developed by their mother and sisters. Then, they sent the photographs back to them along with other pictures they were taking in the family’s house. In September 1914, Younes, one of the brothers, was tragically killed in action and following that the family’s correspondence became haunted by his ghostly figure. This loss motivated an intense communication between the family members.
Although the design and interactivity of the platform are not as sophisticated as many of recent digital archives’ projects, the designers took great care to reflect on the diverse temporalities. First, when the viewsers connect to the site, the interface directs them to the imagined diary of the family with all the letters and pictures that were posted on the exact same dates a century ago. Then, a selection of the letters and pictures were digitized and made available for downloading and printing. Therefore, they give a chance for the reader to experience a remediated materiality of these documents and re-connect emotionally to the authors with the discovery of their handwritten letters. In this way, the designers of the platform wanted their project to follow Lev Manovich’s double definition of the digital screen as a cultural interface – a control surface that hierarchizes data’s and a window that supports an immersive process through several intermedial supports: written texts, pictures, animations, visualization tools and videos. (Manovich, 2001)
The viewser is then asked to choose between several possible tracks to unveil the family’s stories. The main path follows each character’s timeline and offers a valuable gender perspective that is not so common, even today, in the First World War storytelling. There is also the option to select either a map of the places mentioned in the correspondence or to dive in academic research (divided in predefined subthemes) that draws inspiration from the letters’ content. The French film scholar, Guillaume Soulez is one of the main collaborators that explained in an NYU workshop at the Institute for French Studies “the digital project leads to a comprehension of the war from multiple perspectives (…) every click refers to a flashback and the usual shot/counter-shot of the classic documentary is merged within the multiple available materials that teach (the viewser) both History and how to write History.” According to the scholar’s words, the viewsers would both hitchhike on the “pre-established routes” of the web-documentary to recall Sandra Gaudenzi’s seminal typology of Interactive documentaries and “build the roads” of their training as historian apprentices.
In this supposedly self-learning utopia, some concerns nonetheless must be raised. The main one could be formulated as follows: why hasn’t the platform pushed further for the bi-cultural and post-colonial potential of the imaginary Tunisian-French bourgeoise family, above all today in a context of a political threat with the rise of the far-right politics? As stated earlier, the designers utilize the exceptional openness of the family in their giving Arabic names to their children as an effective punch line but their “multiculturalism” quickly disappears within the rigid French boundaries of the platform. Indeed, the interface’s form and content only highlights the family’s patriotic efforts during the war in a territory that does not go beyond the Metropolitan France borders.
In this way, I would argue that the digital platform itself re-frenchifies the family by refusing any other opening toward the questions of multiculturalism or postcoloniality. One simple way, for instance, would have been to create a path in the narrative on the colonial participation in the war that describes the trajectories of the Tunis soldiers, intrinsically connected to the roots of the family. Guillaume Soulez answered to this issue by asserting that they preferred sticking to the strict content of the material. The argument remains however ambivalent since the platform often displays significant digressions that enrich the universe of the correspondence. One could then wonder whether the role of these digital components would not be primarily to effectively push the message toward new perspectives that would offer strong counter-arguments to the “too white” narratives.
In her call for disrupting the digital humanities, the scholar Roopika Risam states “by our engagement in knowledge production, we are complicit in the silences and exclusions of dominant culture. If we aren’t actively resisting it, we are contributing to it. Even when we resist, we must understand our roles in an industry that participates in structures that devalue black lives and, in turn, enable state violence. As scholars of the digital humanities, we must also acknowledge the complicity of technology in creating and magnifying inequalities.” (Risam, 2015).
In the case of Plateforme 14/18, it would be unfair to accuse the site of promoting a race discourse (hardly articulated and often censored within the French context). However, it is important for us scholars to actively resist and denounce the absences that Risam highlights well in her article above all when the project aims to teach students and Professors how to use Digital Humanities as a direct learning platform. For instance, the Google Map visualization tool in display can stretch the map to the Tunisian land. This small detail is already a strong marker of how the interface could offer new frameworks to truly embrace the temporality of 2017. By then, the millennial viewsers would learn about the French History and unveil a colonial taboo, still carefully hidden from the national narrative.
Younes in Arabic means dove, a strong symbol of peace. As the Resal family mourned their son Younes throughout the whole correspondence, it is maybe time to use the potential of the digital interface to add on these multiple historical perspectives. This would also give a chance for the young soldier born in Tunisia to gather both the Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and enhance an inclusive and respectful message of peace that teaches the next generation that History must always be read as a cautionary tale of cyclical events.
Let us remember that officially a bit more than 16,000 Tunisian soldiers died during World War I. Many of them were exhausted from their travels to the frontline and could hardly avoid the shots because they were often placed at the forefront on the battlefield. All these anonymous Younes also deserve the same digital remembrance that was afforded to Younes Resal.
Photo 1/2 – The soldiers from the North African colonies (Les Zouaves) at Compiegne (1914) / in their Winter uniforms (1914)
Gaudenzi, Sandra “Setting the Field: Defining Linear and Interactive Documentary.” InteractiveDocumentary.net. Web. 20 Mar. 2016
Manovich, Lev. The language of New Media. MIT Press. 2001
Risam Roopika “On Disruption, Race, and the Digital Humanities” MLA Position Papers. Digital Edition. 2015.
“Plateforme 14/18” – Workshop given by Guillaume Soulez to the Graduate Students at the NYU Institute for French Studies – 4/18/2017
Plateforme 14/18 <http://www.plateforme1418.com/introduction> (in French)
TO GO FURTHER
Veray Laurent. La Cicatrice. 2013 – Documentary about the Resal family.