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Conversations with History

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Conversations with History

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted February 9, 2000

In the course of his international travels, the eminent South African judge and anti-Apartheid activist Albie Sachs was startled to meet people around the world familiar with little-known details of his life. Then he realized they had gotten their information from a videotaped interview conducted at Berkeley, now available via the Internet in each of Earth's 24 time zones.

"You globalized me, and I didn't even know it," he told Harry Kreisler, executive director of the Institute of International Studies and moderator of its "Conversations with History" series, which has been lauded recently as a notable Web site by USA Today, Yahoo! and MSNBC.

In text and video clips of their remarkable conversation, Sachs shares intimate and often moving reflections on a life lived passionately in the pursuit of social justice, often at great personal risk.

"It seemed to me such an extraordinary paradox that courage was moving my bum across the bed onto the commode," Sachs said of his efforts to re-teach himself to write, move, walk and even defecate in the aftermath of an assassination attempt (he survived the car bomb, but lost an arm). "Something you do quite normally, unthinkingly, unconsciously, now you have to be conscious about every moment of it."

Sharing the Wealth

There was a time when Kreisler alone benefited from one-on-one conversations with institute guests like Sachs in the "dead time" between a visitor's morning seminar and afternoon lecture.

He wanted to change that.

As a child growing up in Galveston, Texas, Kreisler had been fascinated by TV shows like Walter Cronkite's "You Are There," featuring interviews and dramatic reenactments of important historical events, and "Person to Person," in which Edward R. Murrow visited the home of a famous person for a half hour of meaningful conversation.

"I was fascinated by history and personality and individual lives," recalls Kreisler, the son of refugees from Hitler's Europe.

In 1982 -- hoping to make the history of our times come alive for others as his childhood TV heroes had once done for him -- Kreisler videotaped a conversation with German State Secretary Manfred Lahnstein.

Over the next 17 years, with the assistance of campus departments and institutes and the Office of Media Services, Kreisler has interviewed more than 170 political figures, filmmakers, diplomats, artists, human rights activists, scientists and others.

Among them are directors Oliver Stone and Robert Wise, both brought to campus by Pacific Film Archive; Townsend Center guest Wendy Ewald, world-renowned for community projects using photography; and Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzoburo Oe, sponsored by the Japan Center.

At least 60 of the interviews are now available on the Internet with text, images and video excerpts digitized by the Berkeley Multimedia Research Center. The interviews are organized into "research galleries" that allow students to find materials by topics such as "The Changing United Nations" and "Women Role Models for the New Millennium."

Through another feature of the Web site, called "Connecting Students to the World" and developed with a grant from the Interactive University Program, K-12 students have held direct exchanges with a number of the distinguished guests via e-mail or synchronous chat.

Ideas that Matter

Over time, Kreisler has developed a form for his conversations -- attempting in 60 minutes' time to capture how his guests think about the events of their lives and the ideas that matter to them.

"That's a lot to be accomplished in an hour," Kreisler says. In a traditional oral history, he notes, "you may take anywhere from five to 10 hours in different sittings to tell someone's story in detail."

The time limitation and the "intellectual agenda" he brings to the interview create "a unique Internet multimedia publication that focuses on the interplay between personalities and ideas that shape the world around us," he says.

But only with preparation. Prior to an interview, Kreisler spends an average of three to 10 hours reading the person's writings -- usually before dawn, on the Stairmaster at Gold's Gym. "You win the respect of the interviewee by making them understand that you understand who they are," he says.

Berkeley Philosophy Professor John Searle, interviewed in September, commented that Kreisler, like Bill Moyers, "had done his homework."

Since its recent rash of media accolades, "Conversations with History" has been getting 60,000 hits a week, Kreisler says. He hopes that improvements in bandwidth, and a narrowing of the "digital divide" between rich and poor, will allow the institute to reach an even wider audience with text and video versions of "Conversations."

The Web address of "Conversations with History" is


February 9 - 15, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 21)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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