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“If you don’t understand history, you don’t understand the present moment”: Interview on the launch of the new HISTORY Channel format “I Was There – History Up Close” (FOTO)


Munich (ots) – What led to the Chernobyl nuclear accident? Who assassinated US President Abraham Lincoln? How did one of the greatest disasters in the history of aviation, the explosion of the Hindenburg, occur? What were the tragic circumstances that led to the Challenger space shuttle crash? In the new documentary series “I Was There – History Up Close,” host Theo E.J. Wilson addresses such questions to get to the bottom of historical events. The actor and activist believes that we can only really understand history if we were there ourselves. That’s why Wilson – using CGI technology – embarks on virtual time travel to the places where various events in history took place, thus enabling the audience to change their perspective by taking them back to times long past. He immerses himself in the story and suddenly finds himself in the middle of the action. “This allows us to reconstruct an event from a whole new perspective,” says Theo Wilson.

“I Was There – Geschichte hautnah” can be seen as a German TV premiere starting next Sunday, July 24, weekly at 9:05 p.m. in double episodes on The HISTORY Channel.

Below you will find a recent interview with Theo Wilson, in which he talks in detail about “I Was There – Geschichte hautnah”, but also about his own history, his passion for historical topics and his favorite movies, among other things.

“If you don’t understand history, you don’t understand the present moment”

In conversation with Theo E.J. Wilson, host of the new HISTORY Channel series “I Was There – Geschichte hautnah”

From the Hindenburg disaster to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the Chernobyl nuclear accident: In the new documentary series “I Was There – Geschichte hautnah” (starting Sunday, July 24, as a German TV premiere on The HISTORY Channel), host Theo Wilson takes a close look at historical events. The actor, musician, author, poet and civil rights activist uses CGI technology to immerse himself in the events of the time. As an American with African roots, he himself has his very own view of history, never leaving out the “red bond between all human beings,” as he said in the run-up to the German TV premiere of his format.

Your Instagram account lists many professions and selfies: You call yourself “activist,” among other things. Does that have to do with your own historical background?

Yes, activist comes from the fact that unfortunately the world doesn’t always treat you squeamishly, especially in the US. I’m a survivor of police brutality, to put it drastically. They once arrested me for my human rights activities, interrogated me, and kicked me in the hallway. I later translated all of that into poetry as a way to reach an audience and point out what are still major abuses in our society. It’s just an attempt to make the world a better place.

Now you are also the presenter of the new HISTORY Channel series “I Was There – History Up Close,” which is a documentary format with feature film elements about grave events in world history. Do you have a favorite episode and if so why?

My favorite is “The Battle of Stalingrad” because it was the first episode we worked on. It’s a great story of suffering with (war) casualties on both sides, and it’s also the historical event I knew the least about beforehand. That’s the good thing about history: there’s always something new for each of us to learn. Besides the Stalingrad episode, I also favor “The Salem Witch Trials” and the John Lewis biography “Bloody Sunday.” To me, the activist and politician who died in 2020 is one of the greatest heroes of the civil rights movement. I especially had a great time filming on set with actress Maya Washington, who directed two episodes of “I Was There.” Her irrepressible energy had a contagious effect on me. We are also connected, of course, by our African American heritage and coming to terms with “our” history. And then there’s “The Death of Jesse James.” Shooting that episode was really a lot of fun. It was like being in the middle of the Wild West for me!

You just mentioned that there’s always something new for each of us to learn when dealing with history. What does history mean to you personally?

To me, history means that we can also get the present moment right. The present is already written in the past. If you don’t understand history, you don’t understand the present moment! This is also something I have often missed in my country, the U.S.: that history is presented comprehensively, but also understandably. Civil rights movements or social activism can therefore arise when the present moment has not been properly analyzed. This is a very underrepresented topic in our schools. I wish this would change soon!

I read that you also have a connection to history through your family.

Right. My father is a historian. His library is huge, and his favorite topic is “the black American West” (“The Black American West”), which was long characterized by oppression and slavery, but which also gave rise to heroes in the rebellion against these injustices. I grew up with it because he told me about it over and over again. There are several historians like him in my family, and I myself developed a great passion for the subject.

You are an actor, singer, poet and activist. As a multi-talented person, do you believe in a total art concept?

Ultimately, it’s all about self-expression as a human being! Never die with the music inside you, let it out!

Was the CGI technique, often scolded as overdone and not authentic, helpful this time? One gets the impression in “I Was There” that it puts you right in the center of the historical details.

Yes, I acted in front of the green screen a lot on set in Minnesota. Everything was copied in exactly so that it looked real. The special effects team, on the other hand, was in South Africa and did an excellent job. We were really overwhelmed by it. That’s why we can offer the viewer a very effective docu-series.

Let’s talk about your acting activities. For example, you portrayed the protagonist Derrick Redman in the science fiction fantasy series Inner Dimension.

That was a lot of fun for me. Acting is – as I like to say – applied behavioral psychology. There are several applications for me outside of theater, cinema or television. One reason I did poetry slam was to practice acting and activism together. These two things are not combined too often.

In the film project “Gurus,” you play none other than God. What exactly is that about?

A friend of mine – the writer and spoken-word artist Marc Marcel – wrote and also directed the philosophical comic parody “Gurus.” There have been TV episodes before, with funny titles like “Buddha Needs a New Rage Therapist.” I’ve been involved in that, too. He enlisted me this time as a Morgan Freeman interpretation of his portrayal as God in “Bruce Almighty.” “Gurus” may not be for everyone. It doesn’t cater to the mainstream, but it has a lot of humor and is thought provoking.

Do you like going to the movies and what are your favorites?

With all due respect to television, I love the movies even more. Speaking of Morgan Freeman: “The Shawshank Redemption” with him and Tim Robbins blew me away! Based on a Stephen King story, the movie is a prime example of how the human spirit can overcome great obstacles. I also love the first “Matrix” flick, and another favorite film of mine is John Singleton’s 1997 “Rosewood,” in which a town inhabited by blacks is burned to the ground. The reason for the brutal massacre: the lie of a woman from the neighboring town inhabited by whites. Men, women and children are then lynched – but some fight back with the courage of despair. A merciless fight for survival ensues. A powerful drama about how to fight back against racism.

Let’s switch back once again to “I Was There.” The documentary series is now being shown in German-speaking countries for the first time. How have the reactions been in the U.S. so far?

They’ve been very good. Many people have told me that our documentary series is very detailed and should therefore be shown in schools. Each episode is also written and directed like a genre film for the topic in question: “The Death of Jesse James,” for example, like a western, while “The Salem Witch Trials” is like a horror thriller. The intention to impart knowledge and the entertainment factor combine excellently here.

Interview: Marc Hairapetian, publication free of charge

“I Was There – Geschichte hautnah”, moderated by Theo E.J. Wilson:
German TV premiere from July 24 every Sunday from 9:05 p.m. on The HISTORY Channel (12 half-hour episodes in double episodes)

Further information on The HISTORY Channel can be found at,, and

A+E NETWORKS GERMANY / The History Channel (Germany) GmbH & Co. KG

Nicolas Finke
Head of Press & PR
Tel.: +49 (0) 89 208 04 81 16
E-Mail: [email protected]

© Copyright APA-OTS Originaltext-Service GmbH and the respective sender

The article “If you don’t understand history, you don’t understand the present moment”: Interview on the launch of the new HISTORY Channel format “I Was There – History up close” (PHOTO) appeared first on TOP News Austria – News from Austria and around the World.


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