Representing History through Film

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The famous Hollywood Sign in black and white, as it would have appeared in “old movies”.  (Image Courtesy of circa71.wordpress.com)

Somehow the historical side of my blog for my Honors World Civilizations course has almost become more of a platform for me to talk about films.  In the first two posts I did (Post 1 and 2), I talked about Chantal Akerman’s documentaries in various degrees around the times that I watched them.

So, I figure why not take this last post for the class to talk about the relationship between movies and history as a whole?

The way history is depicted in media often has a large impact on how that history is addressed and thought about in our everyday lives.  Whether this is a good or a bad thing is generally debatable.

The fact that events in our past are recorded and repeated through films and TV programs is a great reflection that we as a species are continuing the legacy of those involved in various historical periods and moment.  As one of my favorite clichéd phrases goes, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  If stories from, say, the Holocaust are consistently depicted in films, we’re more likely to keep the Holocaust in our collective consciousness as a reminder that we can’t let it happen again.

In his book Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to our Idea of HistoryRobert Rosenstone talks about film as a tool which can alter our perception of history by saying, “In privileging visual and emotional data and simultaneously downplaying the analytic, the motion picture is subtly […] altering our very sense of the past.” (32)  Rosenstone ponders the differences between written and visual representations of history, wondering whether or not film can hold the same weight as history books or novelizations of events.

In this same vein, there are questions beyond the general strength of film as a medium.  Are films accurate in their approach to dramatizing history? What additional issues can we cultivate in portraying historical recreations?  Yes, it’s great that movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” help to draw large-scale attention to the Holocaust so we can remember it.  However, to what extent is it irresponsible to make those who watch the film believe that Schindler was the same man who trained Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is also the same man who saved his family with “a particular set of skills”?

There are other potential issues with how we depict historical moments in our filmography beyond this name or face association.  Of course, I’m referring specifically to entertainment, fictionalized or blockbuster films and shows rather than documentaries.  There’s a very common complaint that Hollywood is too “whitewashed”, hiring caucasian actors in roles which are better suited for or meant to be people of color.  There’s also the possibility that the very desire to create a film, which by convention tends to be restricted in view time and the perspectives shown on-screen at a time, results in certain editing or removal of pieces from a history.

Now, whether or not I’m qualified to judge if a movie is historically accurate is a different story entirely.  I’m not planning on tearing apart or championing any particular film for how it addresses the history it desires to address.  I just figure this is a good place to talk about why I believe it’s important to try to be as accurate as possible when showcasing history in a film.

Part of why I say I’m not necessarily qualified to judge historical accuracy is because I’m not a history major.  I enjoy learning about history, but I’m not an expert in any time period by any means.  One of the ways I enjoy learning about history is through movies, as it’s much easier to understand or appreciate something that happened when it’s shown in a recognizable way.

Gillo Pontecorvo‘s 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers” is an excellent example of this.  I knew next to nothing about the Algerian War for Independance before watching that movie.  The struggle between the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French Government, the escalating animosity of the two parties from the means of warfare that was used, the large-scale bombings and attacks that devastated the common people, the use of women and their perceived gender roles to sneak things through French boundaries… All of these ideas and more were represented in the film, and therefore all of them were things I learned about the Battle of Algiers from watching it.

Wars and revolutions as a whole are complex, that’s a given just in the nature of building up to such events.  It’s hard to totally understand everything that happens to both parties that physically and psychologically drives them to any sort of conflict.

That’s where I think “The Battle of Algiers” succeeds.  In my opinion, it teaches the history of an event that seems a little less well-known in a way that you get an idea of how both sides are thinking and responding to things throughout the film.  As far as I’m aware, the movie does a great job of teaching someone who knows nothing about the Algerian War (like me, as I’ve said) what they need to know to understand the struggle.

Bear in mind, filmmakers take creative liberties in their art, and what you see in film isn’t always exactly what transpired in history. To some extent, it’s realistically impossible to recreate history exactly as it happened.  For an audience, there should be a balance between suspending your disbelief when you go to a movie and understanding that life is too complex to represent in an hour and a half to a two-hour celluloid format. For a filmmaker, there’s nothing wrong with taking creative liberties or trying to show history in an entertaining way, but we should keep in mind that the movie being created could become someone’s only connection to that period of history.


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