This Documentary Is Telling the Story of World War I in Real Time
Slowly but surely, "The Great War" on YouTube is becoming the most expansive repository of World War I knowledge ever produced.
Indy Neidell is really excited to cover the Centrocaspian Dictatorship. It was a rebellious, unstable state that popped up in Eastern Europe during the constant reshuffling of World War I, a nonviolent coup d'etat between Russian socialist revolutionaries and Armenian liberation front the Dashnaks that established a dictatorship in the Azerbaijani city of Baku. It lasted about a month and a half in the summer of 1918, before being swallowed up by the encroaching Ottomans.
The Centrocaspian Dictatorship is the sort of random historical minutia that's rarely included in big-picture storytelling, and that's what Neidell's YouTube documentary series "The Great War" tries to address. He and his team started the project on the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and have since produced weekly episodes covering the war. So far, he's made 108 videos, including plenty of one-offs focusing on subjects spanning Austro-Hungarian pistols and the plight of Chinese workers on the Western front. Slowly but surely, Neidell is building the most expansive repository of World War I knowledge ever produced.
"Even though the episodes are 10 minutes long, this is way more comprehensive than any documentary," says Neidell in an interview with VICE. "It's really cool to make it in real time, and that we get away from the Western front and you get to see the stuff that happened in Africa and Persia."
Neidell studied both American and European history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut but has lived in Sweden since 1996. In the past, he's made money by playing in bands, doing voiceover work, and running a booking company; in 2013, after uploading a couple videos about baseball history to YouTube, he was contracted by German company Mediakraft to build "The Great War," covering every facet of one of the most complicated times in history. Neidell's been walking through the information as methodically as possible, and in doing so, he's created a "new style of documentary" that puts into clear focus the tremendous breadth and scope of the war.
"If you watch Ken Burns's The Civil War, it's brilliant but static," says Neidell. "You might be sitting at home saying, 'My great-great-grandfather fought in the war, and he wrote in his diary that this happened and that happened,' but that can't become part of the show. "The Great War," however, is worldwide, free, interactive, and evolving all the time."
On average, Neidell is writing about five episodes of "The Great War" at once, studying macro-analyses like Sir Martin Gilbert's The First World War and daily newspaper archives. Through the series, he's become one of the most informed human beings on the planet on the topic of WWI; as such, the Great War (and "The Great War") has started to seep into other facets of his life—he's now doing consulting work with Swedish video game studio EA DICE, which is hard at work on the upcoming World War I–themed first-person shooter Battlefield 1.
"I realized that taking on the Great War was a daunting task, and there were many things I wanted to validate with Indy," says Stefan Strandberg, creative director at DICE. "The Great War can be viewed through many different lenses, and a lot of myths are being debunked with new research today—so I needed partners who echoed my passion for this period in history."
World War I ended after four years, and "The Great War" will also come to an end at some point—something Neidell's given plenty of thought. "It's going to be really sad," he says. "We're already thinking about doing Korea the same way, since there hasn't been a great Korean War documentary. Because of "The Great War," we'll be able to raise a lot of money independently [to make that happen.]"
And chances are he's right: "The Great War" currently pulls about $12,000 a month on Patreon and has almost 400,000 YouTube subscribers. Neidell's proof that, with the right tone and the right knowledge, you don't have to compromise your vision—if you work hard enough, anything can be your job, and the sun will rise on the Centrocaspian Dictatorship one last time.
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