There is only one memory I took away from my first visit to Belgium, years ago. I was taken to see the graves of the fallen from the First World War, and I recall approaching the crest of a hill, unprepared for what I ultimately saw – row upon row of crosses that stretched to the horizon. Looking left and right, it was all that could be seen.
Thousands are buried there, where there were once trenches and barbed wire as far as the eye could see. Those buried there were lambs to the slaughter, lest we forget.
Remembrance Day is Sunday, and each year there are multiple attempts on TV to recognize the service and sacrifice, and to further the principle of remembrance. This isn’t, and should never be, a difficult chore for broadcasters – the horrific moving images of war have been captured on some form of camera for almost a century. If television serves any social purpose, an important element of that purpose is to remind us of the experience of war, no matter how painfully.
On Sunday at 11 a.m., the Remembrance Day ceremony, live from Ottawa, is carried on multiple channels. But there is a great deal more Remembrance Day programming airing throughout the weekend, and there are several remarkable productions worth your attention.
War Story (Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m. on History) is a new documentary series about the personal stories of Canadians in combat, but told only by the men and women who served. No punditry, no voiceovers, just their voices, memories and thoughts. This makes it austerely powerful, and sometimes there is a floating lyric sense of dread. These are tough reminders.
Saturday’s episodes are devoted to the Italian campaign in the Second World War. In Sicily: The First Campaign, veterans recall the terrifying invasion as it started in Sicily. Ortona: The War Inside, at 8:30 p.m., is profoundly evocative, pungent with the terrors of one of the most vicious battles of the war. And in The Road to Rome, at 10:30 p.m., tank veterans talk about the appalling conditions of armoured combat as Rome was reached.
In the Words of a Soldier (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.) is devoted to the story of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan. Hosted by Pastor Mansbridge, it uses her letters sent from Afghanistan to her family in Alberta – read by students at a school named after her – to profile the young woman and dwell on the ideas that compelled Goddard to serve.
Among the truly important programs is 21 Brothers (it’s on video-on-demand across Canada this weekend), made by Michael McGuire of Factory Film Studio in Kingston Ontario. The full-length movie is a faux documentary that chronicles Canada’s 21st Battalion as the troops prepare for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on Sept. 15, 1916. The idea was to document the build-up to the battle in real time, and it was filmed in one long take – recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records recently as the “Longest Uncut Film in the world,” running 91 minutes and eight seconds. It’s not showy or preachy; it’s a vivid, meaningful portrayal of young soldiers and officers who are homesick, terrified and brave.
Also airing this weekend
Call the Midwife (Sunday, PBS 8 p.m.) reaches the end of its short run. It has been much-watched but largely unheralded even as viewers find it addictive. While on the surface it looks like a pretty British period piece about midwives working in a rough London neighbourhood in the 1950s, it is grim in its portrait of poverty and despair, and it presents a group of characters of unusual complexity. It is also a sobering dose of social history, portraying a dire working-class environment that compelled the U.K. government to create the National Health Service.
As much as there are occasions of real joy in the stories told, what some viewers will take away, too, is the formidably tough conditions of London at the time.