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What is Documentary: From evidence to re-enactment

From evidence to re-enactment: History, television and documentary film

A compilation by Prof. Subhash Dhuliya

Based on the article in Journal of Media Practice • June 2015By JoukoAaltonen&JukkaKortti, inputs incorporated from other sources

There has been a significant increase in the number of history programmes and documentary films about history shown on television since the 1990s. This is due to technological and institutional changes in international television but also to the wider commodification of history.

The new technological means and approaches have also provided new opportunities for filmmakers in the field of history documentaries. In this article, we are interested in the role of history in television and documentary filmmaking in general, and in how developments in television and documentary filmmaking have affected the nature of historical documents on television. We are particularly interested in the relationship between history documentaries and academic historical research. What do these changes mean from the point of view of both academics and filmmakers? We approach the question from the standpoints of media practice and the concepts of truth and history culture. As a case study, we focus on the documentary film A Man from the Congo River (2010), directed by one of the writers.

Documentary: A Man from the Congo River (2010) 


AkseliLeppänen was an ordinary man from Northern Europe. After disappointment in love he decided to go to the Congo to meet the new world and become rich. Instead, he met the hard reality of colonialism – and he met himself.

The Belgian Congo colonial administration needed civil servants, soldiers and professionals to rule the vast area. They recruited people from the mother country and other European countries, including Scandinavia. Over 2000 Scandinavians served in different roles in the Congo from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. One of the specialist groups was the skippers and machinists of the boats on the Congo River. AkseliLeppänen was one of the

Akseliwitnesses racism and violence against the Africans, and in the beginning, he wants no part in it. But with time, his attitude changes. He, too, has clashes with black passengers and co-workers. The documentary depicts this gradual, imperceptible change: how a Christian humanist becomes a whip-wielding, sour white foreman.

The movie tells the story of AkseliLeppänen through his own diaries and letters. These unique documents are the framework for the film. His estate includes almost 100 photographs and other documents. There is also fascinating film footage from Belgian and Swedish archives. The film has scenes also from present day Congo, where the sad traces of colonialism can still be seen.

A MAN FROM THE CONGO RIVER adds an interesting chapter into the history of colonialism in Africa. It is important also in our days to tell this yet unknown colonial story with a common content of the moral choices of an individual.

The documentary explores the little known story of Nordic machinists working on the river boats on the Congo River. Professionals were hired on lucrative salaries from Finland and Sweden and they had to give an oath of fidelity to the King of Belgium. Sailors from the North met a new reality in the heart of the Black Africa where the colonial economy was based on slavery and forced labour. In private letters home we can follow how the men from the egalitarian North gradually change, adapting to the racist system.

A concrete personal tool and symbol of the regime was a whip made of the skin of a hippopotamus. First terrified by the brutality of the white oppressors, Nordic sailors soon learned to use the whip themselves. The film adds an interesting chapter to the history of colonialism in Africa. It is important to tell this unknown colonial story about the moral choices of an individual.


The film was a historical documentary about Akseli, who worked as an engineer on riverboats in colonial Congo at the beginning of twentieth century.  It is based on original diaries and letters, and it uses photos and archival materials as well. Besides, there are a few scenes where we see the main character’s hand writing in his diary and his shadow moving on the wall.

The old-school documentary filmmaker Rustanius was upset. ‘These scenes are not true, not authentic, they are fiction, you can’t use them’, he acclaimed. For me it was not a problem; similar kinds of constructed scenes are screened and aired every day. In that sense, Rustanius was right: something had indeed happened to the documentary film and its relationship to evidence and historical truth. Something had also happened with respect to television, the concept of history and the attitudes of audience.

This article focuses on this change, on how media practices, television and history have all affected one another. One of the writers is a documentary filmmaker and the other one a professional historian who specialises in television history. Our aim is to combine these two perspectives because we think that they currently intersect with each other more than ever before.

We are trying to figure out how the practices of historical documentary filmmaking and the concept of history have changed in the last decades. What means are filmmakers using to convince audiences of their historical interpretations and how have they changed over the years?

  • What is the impact of new digital technology on history documentaries?
  • What is the current relationship between television and academic historical studies?
  • How does all of this affect the way an audience senses and experiences history?

Television’s role in presenting history is, however, a subject of tension among professional historians. Historical documentary films may have been seen as populist ‘second rate’ form of doing history that inevitably involve the ‘dumpling down’ of academic history . The most obvious criticism of televised history concerns its tendency to simplify history.

Television, for example, simplifies complicated entities, relies on myths, ignores the latest research and does not take into account different interpretations. More ‘traditional’ historians have been suspicious about using personal testimony and mediated popular memory as a starting point in historiography. They have blamed television for being a postmodern medium that cannibalises styles and images from the past and, consequently, furthers cultural amnesia.

.For instance, the well-known American mediacritic Neil Postman (1985) has blamed television for ruining America’s 400-year-old typographic culture. In addition, Postman claims that it has also trivialised rhetoric. However, this attitude by professional historians has changed during the recent decades. For instance, using oral history documents in the discipline of history hasraised questions concerning the usability and validity of the documents within the discourse of source criticism.

The rise of oral history was a part of the so-called linguistic turn and ‘history from below’ trend started in the 1960s. Nowadays, many historians think that oral history materials should not be discarded as a priori unreliable evidence. Instead, of treating memories as an unreliable source, they argue that oral history should be approached in such a way that what is important is not whether people simply remember something incorrectly, but the reasons for why they chose to remember it in a certain way. According to this way of doing history research, sources are not reliable or unreliable; they are merely informative in a different way.

We are particularly interested in the practice of documentary filmmaking in the reference of history theories. Besides the question of re-enacting, we explore such epistemological concepts as truth, authenticity and evidence. More generally, we see history television documentaries, first and foremost, as a part of history culture.

In analysing the documentary, A Man from the Congo River, we apply the approach of practice-based or practice-led research.

In our case, it means that we want to advance knowledge about practice by reflecting our own creative work. We want to analyse critically work practices and make tacit knowledge visible. The self of the researcher-artist is essential in art-based, practice- based research and reflexivity is one way to approach this question.

Reflexivity is often specified to personal and epistemological reflexivity, the former referring to the individual subject position of the filmmaker, and the latter to more general methodological and theoretical approach.  In this article, reflexivity is considered more epistemological. We are aiming at rational reconstruction of the filmmaking process, including the critical reading of the process and the final film.

We are analysing what kind of aesthetic and cinematic means have been used in the film and discussing why certain decisions were made during the filmmaking process. As research material, we are using filmmaker’s notes, synopsis, six script versions and one editing script.

The filmmaker also kept a work diary during the shootings. This material helps us to construct the process and answer at least some of the questions concerning the form and content of the film. However, these decisions are not made in isolation; it is not only the question of personal reflexivity, not even epistemological reflexivity, but also wider interaction between the filmmakingprocess and the concepts and ideas of history, which, we claim, have been mediated and changed radically during last decades.

Television and history culture

There are more and more employment opportunities for historical documentary filmmakers because showing history on television is more popular than ever before. There has been a ‘history boom’ in the early 2000s in general; it seems like history is everywhere. It has become a significant part of popular entertainment – a leisurepursuit.

In the early twenty-first century, television has been one of the most important agents for communicating historical events. Television became a mediator and a significant factor in the history of culture in general – a sort of shop window for promoting an interest in history amongst the general public, which was noted also by the scholars and the filmmakers. This flow of

historical images has only multiplied since television proceeded to the ‘era of plenty’ at the turn of the millennium.

The increase in the number of channels, digitalisation (technical and economic), convergence and effective global media markets has changed television in many countries. In particular, the digitalisation of television has opened up markets for niche channels and pay TV such as the History Channel. This means that the volume of production and broadcasting history programmes has increased exponentially in recent years.

History documentaries should be seen as a part of a broader history culture in which memory plays a central role. The concept of history and culture refers to the wide range of activities in which images and information about the past are produced, mediated and used, and also to the ways in which historical consciousness is socially constructed and expressed in different societies. These activities help societies and individuals construct concepts of themselves, their environment and the world around them.

One of the key theorists in the field, German historian JörnRüsen has divided history culture into three dimensions: aesthetic , political and cognitive.

(Cognition is the process by which one acquires knowledge through experience, thought and sensory input. When a person uses this cognition to integrate various inputs to create an understanding, it’s called as cognitive thinking. Cognitive skills are used to comprehend process, remember and apply incoming information. The definition of aesthetic is being interested in how something looks and feels. An example of someone who is aesthetic might be an artist. Aesthetic means the pleasant, positive or artful appearance of a person or a thing. An example of the word is aesthetic is to say that a particular car is beautiful.)

All three dimensions can be found in current history documentaries.

The flow of historical images, such as certain famous archival film clips, creates a collective consciousness. Therefore, television plays a significant role in mediating collective memory. As one of most influential theorists in the field, French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs has emphasised, historical representations have an important role in creating collective memory.

Making history culture in practice: A Man form the Congo River

(Also watch BBC documentary:  Congo: A journey to the heart of Africahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43xTvpxWLW4)

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When a historian is preparing a research project, he or she is trying to reconstruct and interpret the past in a particular context. According to methods of source critic,he or she is using different historical sources and critically estimating their reliability. It substantially resembles the process of conducting research for documentary films.

In the case of the aforementioned A Man from the Congo River, the whole project started from a footnote in a research article that mentioned several Finnish seamen working on the Congo River during the worst years of colonialism. Together with historian SeppoSivonen, another scriptwriter, I conducted extensive research in archives and museums in Finland, Sweden and Belgium. Finally, we found the diaries and letters of our main character in one museum.

After that, it was clear that the film would be based on these materials, and we tried to reconstruct Akseli’s point of view. He was at the heart of colonial terror, yet he played only a small part in the larger racist colonial system. The film tells how he changes from an innocent bystander to an active participant in colonial society during his long years in Africa. While using violence to keep black workers in line, he was at the same time an intelligent and arguably quite sympathetic person.

Whereas an historian uses words, a filmmaker makes use of the broad opportunities available through visual, aural and cinematic means to express his or her interpretation. Affective, emotional means offer one important way for understanding the past.

In this film, we used a wide variety of audio-visual elements to tell the story and visualise history.

These different kinds of elements are orchestrated to create aesthetic impressions. The pictures and sounds are edited together to strengthen the story and the historical


  • Photos (of the main character + general photos of the era) archival film (river boats, scenery)
  • Maps animation
  • Objects in museums (whips, knives, cameras, etc.)
  • Archival paper documents (letters, newspapers, passports, etc.) scenes showing museums and archives
  • Places where the events took place shown in the present day; historical remains texts superimposed on pictures, the names of places, etc.
  • Metaphors and symbolic scenes (a statue of Christ without a hand)
  • Parallel pictures combining the present and the past (shots of the military today) abstract pictures (close-ups of water)
  • Re-enactments (a man writing in his diary, the main character’s shadow)
  • Audio: voice of the main character (the diaries interpreted by an actor) neutral, ‘objective’ voice-over
  • Music of the era
  • Music (by composer TapaniRinne) sound effects
  • Silence

The aesthetic dimension particularly affects an audience’s ability to sense history through memory work. The most obvious aesthetic form where these elements can be found is literary fiction, but it can also be found in more factual representations as well as in documentary films.

The aesthetic elements of history in A Man from the Congo River are created through the main character and the plot. The story of a heartbroken Finnish man who escapes the depression and unemployment of his home country and travels to Africa, a continent that offers more opportunities, is a typical way of representing history through the narrative of an individual. In addition, this individual story has more general significance.

AkseliLeppänen stands quite wellfor an average Finnish person recruited for the colonial Congo: he was male, single, educated and looking for adventure. What was untypical was his age. He was 34 when travelling to Congo (immigrants were usually younger).

Akseli’s matureness was revealed in his diaries since the text is thoughtful, reflective and sometimes even philosophical. That was positive for our project, because we could build the narrative to Akseli’s own voice. In the early script versions, there was more of his text, which was cut-off from the final script.

In academic history, this method has been used particularly in the tradition of micro-history. Then a researcher, whose point of view becomes an intrinsic part of the account, will focus on individuals or other small units of research, such as villages or communities, to illuminate larger phenomena in history.

Micro-history stresses the need of testing historical constructs against existing reality in the small scale. The tradition has also emphasised narratives of history as well as micro-biography, i.e. the biography of a relatively unimportant individual

The cognitive element (truth) is most obviously present in the voice-over of the film, both through the reading of the diary of the main character and through the relating of historical facts about colonial Congo – especially the terror and genocide.

Besides showing images of original documents, for instance passports and letters, we also showed various archives and museums in several scenes. They strengthen the impression of reliability when referring to institutions. But do these pictures make the historical interpretation offered by the film more ‘real’ or authentic?

Authenticity, ‘truth’ and reconstruction

Authenticity is an essential question in history documentaries, both from the point of view of history and from the point of view of the audience and filmmaker. For professional historians, the question of authenticity is the question of ‘truth’, which has been a tricky concept for historical theory, at least since the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1960s. Some postmodernist history theorists of the late twentieth century even went so far as to suggest that academic historiography is a form of fiction. According to this way of thinking, reality is an illusion and the concept of truth in history is irrelevant.

Although truth can be a relativist concept in the sense that there are always different types of knowledge and people attach different meanings to truth, professional historians – and documentary filmmakers – generally do not think that the past is just a plaything of the present. It is not useless to discredit myths, correct distortions and authenticate events.

A Man from the Congo River is situated in the documentary genre by the audience, so the presentation is understood to make claims about historical truth. These claims can have different cinematic forms, but they are claims anyhow. Although the voice- over is read by an actor, it is shown several times that the text is from Akseli´s original diary, for instance.

The issue of authenticity is not as important as it used to be in theoretical discussions about documentary filmmaking. The idea that there can be several interpretations of history – even in the same film or programme – is obvious. Reality and history are not only somewhere out there beyond our subjective grasp; they are also created and constructed through television and in documentary filmmaking all the time. This also concerns the viewing experience. Furthermore, audiences are much more aware of the nature of historical documentaries as artificial reproductions of history.

The questions of authenticity, evidence and truth in documentary filmmaking are crucially bound up with the concept of reconstruction. A filmmaker finds and creates materials for history documentaries by intervening with the world.

British media scholar Brian Winston has devised a model that describes the various levels of a filmmaker’s intervention in reality. Winston calls it a reconstruction continuum, and it ranges from non-intervention to total intervention. The continuum describes how actively a documentary filmmaker is involved in the situation and how he or she organises the world in front of the camera. At theone end of the continuum, a filmmaker is not involved at all; he or she just has access to shoot the shots.

Archives and reconstructing history

Traditionally, the reconstruction of the past in history documentaries has been based – more or less – on ‘real’ material: the photos and archival footage of real events or interviews with real people. Photographs have been used as evidence.

The indexical and iconic nature of photography seemingly guarantees the authenticity of the picture. Actually, this has never been the case; nothing has ‘guaranteed’ the truth, except the intention and ethics of a filmmaker. Even in analogical times, it was easy to falsify photographs. But nowadays critics and viewers alike are questioning authenticity more often in light of the digital opportunities to modify and falsify photos.

In history documentaries, it is becoming a part of everyday practice to manipulate photos, to add elements, to combine several pictures and so forth. But for several history documentary filmmakers, traditional, ‘indexical’ authenticity still means a great deal.

In Finland, the film director Seppo Rustanius has concentrated on documentaries about the 1918 Finnish Civil War. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FCfJBKCyao) His films are based on photographs and archival footage, and they have also been referenced in academic history

works. Rustanius is very precise and strict about the authenticity of the photos. They have to be shot in the right place at the right moment, and the audience must be able to trust the filmmaker in this sense.

The practice of using archival photos and film footage has become noticeably looser during recent years. The material is often used to help viewers visualise a certain era, using, for instance, generic pictures or impressions of a period or place. A filmmaker may encounter the problem of having pictures that are almost correct. In A Man from the Congo River, the events happened during the 1910s, but the archival footage was from the late 1920s or even from the beginning of the 1930s.

The question for a filmmaker was thus: Can we use this material to help viewers visualise events? And if so, should the audience be informed that the pictures are not from the actual era? The question is highly ethical and highlights the differences between the source criticism of professional historiography and historical documentary filmmaking. In this particular case, the footage was used because the boats looked about the same as they did in the 1910s and the geographical location was correct.

One of the crucial questions is: are the photos just illustrating the voice-over? This practice is, of course, a common convention in the documentaries. It could also be asked whether the pictures are creating atmosphere, commenting or constructing a plot or claiming something cinematically.

At its best, the material does this all. However, often a filmmaker has to make compromises. When editing A Man from the Congo River, we just did not have all those pictures or archive footage we wishedto have. Often, a documentary filmmaker is able to tell a story and make historical claims only with those visual and auditory materials available.

For a filmmaker, the problem is how to re-contextualise old archival material, which can originally be a sign of something totally different, with its own precise and special meaning. A classic example is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935)serves as a visually stunning propaganda film even today.

(Leni Riefenstahl on having creative freedom for Triumph of the Willhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91607Aqn-mo&list=PL6vah4JNMAwXBZveWigLoEpwP_o1w7CX3&index=2)

Frank Capra used images from the film in his famous series Why We Fight (1942– 1945). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcAsIWfk_z4&list=PLugwVCjzrJsXwAiWBipTE9mTlFQC7H2rU. The images of strength and youth in Nazi ideology were transformed into images of danger and evil in the hands of the American filmmaker.

A filmmaker can combine elements by editing pictures and sounds together, but in addition it is now possible to combine elements inside a picture via digital technology. Computer-generated imaginary (CGI) is also a great tool for documentary filmmakers. Even archival material, such as old newsreel scenes, can be totally reworked.

This is the case in the recent documentary 1989 by Anders Østergaard and ErzsébetRácz (2014)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT4qlx9RUgk. This international co-production on the European revolution of 1989 reconstructs the past by following two stories surrounding the events: the former Hungarian Prime Minister MiklósNeméth and an East German coupleattempting to cross the Hungary–Austria border in 1989.

The use of archival footage and placing the individuals in new contexts ‘invites the audience into the secret meeting rooms through a mixture of “testimonials”, archive material, recreation, and reconstructed dialogues lip-synch’ed to archive footage of the real political key characters’.

Besides the main characters of the documentary reconstructing their past, we see the main politicians of the era, such as the last President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and Chancellor of West Germany Helmut Kohl, having ‘authentic’ discussions that were not actually ever filmed. In terms of Winston’s Reconstruction continuum, 1989 creates the re-enactment of witnessed action by using CGI

Theidea of a photographic image serving as indexical evidence in documentaries has changed in recent years. Ten, even five, years ago, the way in which 1989 manipulates real archival footage would have been improper, if not an act of lying and falsifying reality. But nowadays filmmakers are not that bound to indexicality anymore.

Consequently, the number of animated documentaries is increasing as well. A good example is Ari Folman’s feature-length animation Waltz with Bashir(2008)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynH68E1GEdc,which tells about the experiences of the filmmaker as a solder in the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. The film explores the question of memory which is also a central theme in many other present-day historical documentaries.


Re-enacting the past

History documentaries are using re-enactments more than ever before. The most evidently the phenomenon is realised in the so-called ‘reality-experiential history documentaries’, which first appeared on television at the turn of the millennium.

The majority of those programmes, which are sort of a mix of reality TV, history documentaries and game shows, are generally seen as ‘infotainment’, or ‘factual entertainment’, or ‘historical reality’, meaning that they are located somewhere between entertainment and education.

To put it in a nutshell, they are programmes where ‘ordinary people’ have been made to live in ‘authentic’ historical environments, such as in the nineteenth century American West (Frontier House; PBS 2002https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTHFUSvl_Vg).

An interesting example of the contemporary re-enactment in documentary film is Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent and acclaimed film The Act of Killing (2012)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-349HTKhPno&has_verified=1.

The film tells about political murders in Indonesia in the 1960s. Gangsters and politicians, those who committed the murders of communists, reenact the events by themselves. As Oppenheimer said in an interview, instead of survival victim’s testimonies, he wanted to show how the perpetrators imagined themselves and how they wanted to be seen.

The film, ‘documentary of the imagination’ is quite performative, mixing in elements and roles from American genre movies, which the gangsters admire and imitate. Accordingly, Oppenheimer does not consider himself as a documentarian. He also sees direct cinema and other observational documentary as a form of fiction.

From passive illustration to active creation

Academic historians have argued that television is unsuitable for the construction of history because it produces forgetfulness, not memory: the flow of television handicaps a viewer’s ability to contextualise historical events and also her or his ability to retain them. The most obvious criticism of televised history concerns its tendency to simplify history (‘coffee-table history’).

According to our view, current audio-visual history presentations, with their re- enactments and other means of producing history, have the potential to provide new ways in sensing and understanding history, sometimes better than ordinary literary forms.

Instead of disdaining history documentary films, academic historians shouldlearn to read them along with visual history culture in general. Television documentaries have a significant role in history culture, and vice versa.

It is crucial both for historians and filmmakers to understand that the means of representing history are changing all the time. During the last few decades, new and different forms, clones or mutations of documentary films and programmes have increased. The new types of documentaries can be quite subjective and interactive; they use multimedia and mix different genres and time periods and challenge concepts of history.

There has been a clear tendency in history documentaries to move from evidence- based, reconstructed historical presentations towards the re-enactment of history. We see more and more history documentaries that are based on re-enactments, or even enactments, of possible hypothetical events.

The popularity of re-enactments and the new forms of history documentaries must be seen within the context of three phenomena:

  • The development of television
  • The rise of digital technology
  • Changing history culture

The exponential increase in the demand for documentaries, as well as the reality TV trend, has changed the nature of history documentaries. New technical possibilities are resulting in new practices for history documentary filmmaking.

But digitalisation is also affecting our concept of ‘truth’ and evidence. Audiences are not looking so much for evidence; they are looking for a socially constructed experience of history. Both historians and filmmakers are creating their interpretations of history – to be interpreted once again by the audience. The question of authenticity or truth is still valid for all, but it is taking on new forms.

For a filmmaker, the digital revolution and changes in television culture and documentary film have meant that the concept of authenticity has changed from being a technical question to being an ethical question.

In particular, the increasing popularity of re-enactment – engaging with the past by experiencing history ‘bodily’ – has changed not only documentary films; it has also affected the way in which the past is sensed in general. History documentaries are no longer only ‘coffee-table history’ books for television.

Recommended Documentaries

Nanook of the North (1922)

The Man with the movie camera (1929)

Man of Aran (1934)

Triumph of the Will (1935)

Olympiad (1938)

Listen to Britain, Humphrey Jennings, 1942

Let There Be Light (1945)

Night and Fog (1955)

Chronicle of a Summer (1961)

Lonely Boy, Wolf Koenig & Roman Kroitor, 1962

The Sorrow and the Pity (1970)

The Ax Fight, Tim Asch & Napoleon Chagnon, 1975

Reassemblage, Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1982

Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner, 1985

Shoah (1985)

Hotel Terminus (1987)

Roger & Me, Michael Moore, 1989

Sink or Swim, Su Friedrich, 1990

Blue, Derek Jarman, 1993

Bus 174, José Padilha& Felipe Lacerda, 2002

The Fog of War, Errol Morris, 2003

Royal Visit to Calcutta (1906)

Raja Harishchandra (1913)

SatyawanSavitri (1914)

LafangaLangoor  (1935)

Great Bonfire of Foreign Clothes (1921)

Call Me Chamar (1980) by LoksenLalvani

Road to Victory, Whispering Legions and Voice of Satan by Ezra Mir

Tree Of Wealth by A.Bhaskar Rao

Gift of Love (1982) by MeeraDewan

DeepaDhanraj’sKyaHua Is SheharKo (1987)

Bhopal: Beyond Genocide (1985) by SuhasiniMulay

Congo: A journey to the heart of Africahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43xTvpxWLW4


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