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THE MAKING OF POWER FOR THE PARKINSONS
by Dr. Ephraim K. Smith

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Many of those in the audiences who watched Power and the Land may not have realized how much reenactment took place in the film. This was certainly is the case in the opening scenes involving the family’s use of the wood stove, kerosene lights, and the tub and scrub board. Here the Parkinsons were recreating what life had been like before electricity. This was “reenactment” and not “reality” in terms of the family’s life style in late 1939. But such a filming technique was fairly common during this period. In the early 1920s, even the great American filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, had made widespread use of reenactment in his classic Nanook of the North. This type of approach was fairly common up through the 1950s. As Brian Winston has demonstrated in an article (in Kees Bakker, Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context, 1999) Ivens was not the only documentary filmmaker to use what some have called “straightforward re-enactment” or the “staging of reality.”

At one point, Ivens did seem to stretch the boundaries of the “staging of reality.” One of the more pastoral scenes in Power and the Land shows the Parkinson boys leading two white horses out of the barn, harnessing them to a mower, and then going out to cut the hay. In the final sequences, the hay is pitch forked onto a wagon, which the boys drive back to the barn, passing Hazel as she is hanging clothes on the line. The horses are then unhitched. In reality, the Parkinsons used mules rather than horses. They did not have any horses on their farm. Ivens, however, had persuaded the Parkinsons to use horses, apparently believing that this would make the story more representative of a typical Ohio farm operation. And if Ivens brought in horses, he also left out any shots of the family’s tractor - until the end of the farm. Bill Parkinsons, according to the recollections of his nephew John W. Parkinson III, had a gasoline-powered tractor prior to the arrival of the film crew. But in the film, the tractor is shown only in the final scenes - after the family has electricity. Hazel, having cooked a meal on her new electric stove, goes out on the porch to ring the bell announcing supper. Bill, driving a steel-wheeled tractor, heads back to the house. Was the appearance of the tractor in the final moments of the film an attempt to show that the Parkinsons, foresighted enough to join a co-op and bring electricity to their farm, were also progressive enough to use other technological innovations? Interestingly enough, the Parkinsons had apparently made only very limited use of this tractor. The real field work on their farm had been done using the team of mules.


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