In recent decades, a burgeoning scholarly attention has turned to how documentaries problematise the private through the reworking of amateur films. Building upon Jay Leyda’s foundational concept of the compilation film,1 many of these studies delve deep into the dialectical tensions arising when the private sphere intersects with the public space. This interest is evidenced by Patricia Zimmermann and Karen Ishizuka’s edited volume Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories,2 Laura Rascaroli, Gwenda Young, and Barry Mohanan’s edited volume Amateur Filmmaking: The Home Movie, the Archive, the Web,3 and the more recently, Global Perspectives on Amateur Film Histories and Cultures edited by Masha Salazkina and Enrique Fibla-Gutiérrez.4 Overall, they seek to unpack the amateur film, and explain how images usually deemed as seemingly ordinary, unremarkable, or historically irrelevant, could be reassessed in new and revealing ways. Within this scholarly milieu emerges Efrén Cuevas’ book Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries. As the title suggests, Cuevas ventures into the realm of historical research through filmmakers’ explorations of overlooked perspectives of the past, always from a critical point of view. Within its pages, Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries offers a thorough study of a myriad of documentaries that intersect the unearthing of ordinary experiences through archival footage with microhistory, a method of work emerged from history writing. In this way, as the book unfolds, Cuevas is able to provide a comprehensive understanding of the potential of amateur films as documents for social history.

Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries represents a culmination of Cuevas’ extensive research on the home movie as source for documentaries, building upon themes he previously explored in his articles on microhistory published in 2014 and 2018.5 In this book, however, Cuevas takes a broader cinematic canvas, in some cases expanding on the films he dissected in his earlier writings, and discussing new ones. What sets Cuevas’ book apart is its global perspective. His exploration transcends the usual confinement to Western documentaries dealing with archival footage, instead focusing on the transnational aspects of cinema and delving into how the private sphere engages with the public domain in varied social contexts around the world. Thus, Cuevas’ book takes a moment to meticulously examine and reflect on the multifaceted layers of amateur cinema through the lens of microhistory. In the following lines of this review, I will offer an examination of all the book’s chapters, and the main case studies Cuevas approaches, elucidate what can be gained from (or what is the productivity of) exploring these documentaries through the lens of microhistory, and also shed light on what Cuevas’ analysis might have left behind.

In the opening two chapters of the book, Cuevas lays the groundwork for examining microhistorical documentary films. This foundation is built by placing microhistory in the larger context of social and cultural history’s shift toward focusing on the perspectives and experiences of ordinary people, often referred to as “history from below.” Here, he outlines microhistory’s main tenets, including reduced-scale observation, a focus on ordinary individuals, intensive archival research, narrative structures, and the use of conjecture, elements that are crucial for his further analysis. In a very pedagogical way, Cuevas bring in debates around home movies as historical evidence, to later examining how they are appropriated in documentaries, either retaining or contesting their original meanings, or historicising them to provide alternative microhistorical perspectives (something he already proposed in an article from 2013).6 From this, Cuevas outline two main approaches for his case studies: collective portraits made from home movies of a community/era, and personal/family histories embedded in context. Tracing the roots of microhistory back to studies of everyday life and Kracauer’s nuanced understanding of the relationship between micro and macro scales, Cuevas expands on the concept of microhistory, as crafted by Italian historians like Carlo Ginzburg and Giovanni Levi. In simple, he proposes “microhistorical documentary” as a categorisation for certain contemporary documentaries that creatively adapt aspects of written microhistory, differing from ethnographic or historical TV documentaries in their emphasis on archival research and flexible narrative approaches that foreground the filmmaker. For Cuevas, the crux lies in the films’ historical representativeness, a meticulous interweaving of theory, practice, and historical context. This nuanced approach becomes the linchpin of his analysis, paving the way for a very cohesive account of microhistorical documentaries coming from different parts of the world.

Cuevas’ analysis begins in Chapter Three, drawing on the microhistorical dimension of the Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács’ documentaries, focusing on three of his films that most clearly exemplify this approach: The Maelstrom (1997), Free Fall – Private Hungary 10 (1996), and Class Lot – Private Hungary 11 (1997). Central to Cuevas’ analysis is the way Forgács recontextualises footage, infusing once mundane depictions of domestic life, with the ominous foreboding of an impending historical catastrophe the Nazi invasion, as in the case of The Maelstrom. In unpacking Forgács’ films, Cuevas also unfolds one key argument that will permeate the rest of his case studies: the authorial perspective that filmmakers, in one way or another, endow to their historiographical explorations (p. 70). In Forgács’ case, his transformation of (other people’s) personal memories in home movies help him to see how what we perceive as ordinary is, in fact, laden with untold stories. Indeed, this poignant contrast between the innocence of the before and the devastation of the after becomes a central theme in this chapter. In the second part of the chapter, Cuevas studies Free Fall and Class Lot together as a microhistorical chronicle of Hungary from the late 1930s to the 1960s based on the home movies of György Pető and his family. Cuevas benefits from analysing all these films to explain how everyday life emerges as a key historiographical category that provides an alternative perspective to “official” history. In a way, this is a reminder of the flexibility of meaning of home movies in formal terms, but also compels us to grapple with the complexity of historical narratives, unveiling the temporal tensions between personal stories and broader historical forces. Indeed, one could push back on Cuevas’ claim that Forgács achieves a balance between micro and macro scales. This, especially as the macro context in Forgács’ films feels way more tangential at times.

In the following chapter, Cuevas examines documentaries about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, exploring how Something Strong Within (Robert A. Nakamura, 1994), From a Silk Cocoon (Satsuki Ina, Emily Clay and Stephen Hoslapple, 2005), A Family Gathering (Lise Yasui, 1988), and History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (Rea Tajiri, 1991) adopt microhistorical approaches by focusing on ordinary families and individuals to different extents. Cuevas argues that what these documentaries share a postmnemonic perspective, with filmmakers exploring events preceding their birth that left deep scars on their families and motivated their quests to uncover suppressed stories. In a way, Cuevas contends that Marianne Hirsch’s notion of postmemory, as an intergenerational transmission of memory, is a key framework illuminating the autobiographical dimensions of these documentaries seeking to uncover suppressed histories (pp. 107-108). This, having in mind that while Something Strong Within relies primarily on home movies to construct a collective portrait of life in the camps, the other films benefit from more personal sources such as letters, diaries, photographs, and interviews to relate traumatic family histories marked by gaps and silences. This works for Cuevas to reflect on the limitations of available archives for microhistories, an aspect where Carlo Ginzburg’s evidential paradigm, or the meticulous analysis of seemingly insignificant historical evidence to uncover hidden meanings and reconstruct the thoughts and experiences of individuals, becomes relevant. In any case, this gap in family archives catalyse investigation and creative work, with filmmakers treating fragmentary sources as microhistorians do, establishing interesting methodological parallels. Cuevas also argues that these documentaries construct countermemories (p. 96) that challenged the then-official narrative justifying mass internment of an ethnic minority within the US. However, this approach seems to overlook how texts, when labelled as countermemories, could paradoxically reinforce the dichotomy between dominant hierarchies and marginalised groups.

The idea of the personal is delved into the autobiographical in a deeper way in Chapter Five. Here, Cuevas provides a compelling examination of Rithy Panh’s L’image manquante (The Missing Picture, 2013) as a microhistorical exploration of personal and collective memory. Cuevas’ analysis illustrates how Panh leverages subjective experience to gain insight into historical trauma. Panh’s work is not analysed in isolation, but contextualised with his previous oeuvre, also dealing with Cambodia’s dark past. However, for Cuevas “the microhistorical character of The Missing Picture is the result of transcending the autobiographical narrative focusing on an individual, so that its memory work becomes a means to access to historical knowledge” (p. 137). In a way, the personal allows Panh to understand the past from a new approach. Indeed, in doing this, one key factor Cuevas highlights is its combination of historical chronology with essayistic reflection and dreamlike, subjective scenes that underscore the film’s status as a memory film. This strategy helps Panh, considering the lack of a vast archive of images of the genocide (p. 143), in filling gaps, through creative strategies like clay figurines and dioramas. This becomes a quest for the “missing picture” that gives the film its title, which encompasses the lost images of the genocide itself, Panh’s own erased childhood, and his dead loved ones. 

The Missing Picture

This focus on political conflict continues in the next chapter. Here, Cuevas analyses several documentary films that adopt microhistorical approaches to examine the complex history of Israel and Palestine, interweaving personal stories with the macrohistory of the region. The chapter begins by analysing Kach Raenu (Israel: A Home Movie, Arik Bernstein and Eliav Lilti, 2012), constructed from different home movie collections to provide a collective portrait of Israeli history from the 1930s through the 1970s. However, Cuevas notes that the film blends the micro with the macro scale by incorporating more footage of public events, resulting in a hybrid approach about the past that eventually ends up being more about the public history, and less grounded in the nature of home movies (pp. 154-155). In any case, the analysis of Israel: A Home Movie serves to introduce first-person autobiographical perspectives, anchored in the filmmakers’ present witnessing of events. This unfolds quite nicely, as Cuevas has already made his argument for autobiographical approaches of microhistorical documentaries. Here, Cuevas focuses on critical examinations of Israel’s national myths in the works of Michal Aviad and Yulie Cohen, where the former provides a deeper historical analysis while the latter highlights a more contemporary viewpoint. However, this chapter would not be comprehensive enough without the analysis of Alam laysa lana (A World Not Ours, 2012), arguing how Palestinian filmmakers like Mahdi Fleifel have also portrayed his community’s experiences. Through Fleifel’s autobiographical recollection of summers spent in a Lebanese refugee camp, the film offers an intimate collective portrait of the camp over generations shaped by exile and loss of homeland. Unfortunately, one thing this chapter leaves aside, especially in such problematic case, is a stronger, more comprehensive critique around potential biases or contradictions stemming from the filmmakers’ positionality.

Cuevas leaves his last chapter to argue for an unorthodox microhistorical reading of Jonas Mekas’ avant-garde diary film Lost, Lost, Lost (1976). While more of an essayistic documentary, Cuevas argues that the film effectively constructs a microhistorical narrative of the immigrant experience of displaced Lithuanians in the post-WWII United States, as well as a loose microhistorical chronicle of the emerging avant-garde film community in New York City during this time. Crucially, in Lost, Lost, Lost, Mekas intertwines celebratory imagery of his community’s gatherings with his trademark melancholic voiceover, reflecting on their rootlessness. This retrospection enables him to merge the personal and communal aspects, creating a poignant synthesis of joy and gloom. However, the experimental, poetic style that evolves over the course of Lost, Lost, Lost also raises questions about the viability, or productivity, of reading the film through the lens of microhistory in unpacking themes of displacement, “lost” childhood, memory, and identity, issues that remain underexplored in favour of a more formalist approach between temporalities. However, while microhistory brings insightful perspectives to Lost, Lost, Lost, the tension between artistic subjectivity and historical representation is not sufficiently addressed in the chapter. Or, put it in another way, it grapples with how Mekas’ radical poetic style resists and transcends conventional historical narrative.

Having traversed the landscapes of Cuevas’ Filming History from Below, a nuanced exploration of microhistorical documentaries ultimately unfolds, shedding light on the interesting interplay between personal narratives and historical representation. One thing is for sure, that Cuevas’ work undeniably enriches the debate on what can be gained in analysing documentaries through the lens of microhistory. Yet, while personal narratives offer intimate glimpses into historical events, they can unwittingly bolster prevailing biases, something that this book could have further developed. Also, a more comprehensive comparative analysis between cases could unveil shared thematic threads and unique approaches. For instance, the different platforms these documentaries circulate is something that should be taken in consideration when examining how narratives are assembled, as in the case of Rithy Panh’s TV documentary The Missing Picture. Nevertheless, in comparing Filming History from Below with previous research on the topic, a distinctive voice emerges. The book reminds us that in unearthing historical narratives from below, people’s agency is at the forefront. In essence, it is within the critical conversations that Cuevas offer that microhistory as an analytical framework for studying documentaries thrives.

Efrén Cuevas, Filming History from Below: Microhistorical Documentaries (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022).


  1. Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964).
  2. Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmernamm, eds., Mining the Home Movie. Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
  3. Laura Rascaroli, Gwenda Young, and Barry Monahan, eds., Amateur Filmmaking: The Home Movie, the Archive, the Web (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).
  4. Masha Salazkina, and Enrique Fibla-Gutiérrez, eds., Global Perspectives on Amateur Film Histories and Cultures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020).
  5. See: Efrén Cuevas, “Change of Scale: Home Movies as Microhistory in Documentary Films” in Amateur Filmmaking: The Home Movie, the Archive, the Web, Laura Rascaroli, Gwenda Young and Barry Monahan, eds. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), pp. 139-52; and “Microhistoria y cine documental: Puntos de encuentro,” Historia Social, Issue 91 (2018): pp. 69-84.
  6. Efrén Cuevas, “Home Movies as Personal Archives in Autobiographical Documentaries,” Studies in Documentary Film 7, Volume 7, Issue 1 (March 2013): pp. 17–29.

About The Author

Vladimir Rosas-Salazar recently completed his PhD at the Department of Film and Television Studies, University of Warwick, UK. His research interests overlap film and media studies with memory studies, in the context of Latin America.

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