Category: Honors 210B

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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Remembering an Individual’s Impact

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The funeral of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas from Chantal Akerman’s “South” [Image Courtesy of Arts Emerson]
My last historically oriented blog post mentioned Chantal Akerman’s 2002 documentary about the Mexican/American border titled “From the Other Side”. I had used it as one of my examples for looking at individual stories rather than blindly accepting overgeneralizations and stereotypes as a means of understanding said individual.

Recently, I watched another one of Akerman’s films, “Sud” or “South” as it’s otherwise known. This 1999 documentary again orients itself in the United States but focuses on racial tensions and crimes in the Southern states – as the film’s name would suggest – rather than on the border.

To accomplish this, Akerman dedicates the entire 70-minute run time of the movie to the 1998 James Byrd Jr. murder case in Jasper, Texas. I’ll leave a link to the small summary and tribute to the event from the Anti-Defamation League here, which I feel does a good job catching those unfamiliar with the case up to speed without the more graphic particulars of the murder seen in the interviews throughout “South”.

The movie does a really phenomenal job at characterizing the context of a town around which this sort of atrocity might occur. There are long takes and scenic “drive-by” camera shots throughout that show off different parts of the Southern town, each area of the town giving off a different impression. The streets are lined with dilapidated structures even toward what seems to be the center of town, the swampy outskirts almost seem unkempt and dangerous, the church where Mr. Byrd’s funeral procession is held is full of energy and communal understanding, and the roads running all over begin to feel more sinister and eerie as you realize Akerman chose to showcase the roads where Mr. Byrd’s body was dragged.

The overall feeling in Jasper leaves you with distinct impressions of “poor, backwater town” stereotypes one might come to when thinking about small places hidden away in the deeper parts of the Bible Belt. This is probably the point to some extent, as Jasper could be seen as a larger representation of the region as a whole. Of course, this brings to mind my last post again, in which I addressed the idea that stereotypes tend to be seeped in elements of reality even when completely over embellished or used for negative purposes.

One of the key things I took away from “South” that made me want to discuss it was the impression it gave about the state of modern racism and how it affects individuals, despite being an attitude generally targeting an entire group of people. During his interview with Akerman, the sheriff of Jasper comments on the hate crime the town had so recently become known for. Trying to dance around the issue of race, he talks about the economic problems in Jasper being a primary cause of the issues and tensions, going so far as to say that Jasper has “less racial problems” than most places in the United States.

Personally, my next question to the sheriff after hearing a comment like that would have been something along the lines of, “Even if your town has a better record than most, why is it acceptable to have any sort of record in that field?” Perhaps Akerman asked this and it wasn’t shown in the film, but if that were the case there would be no way of knowing it.

Thinking about the individuals involved in these sorts of worldly issues, be it border management or hate crimes, seems (to me at least) to be the best approach in terms of addressing such difficult topics. Just as it can be hard to remember that every illegal immigrant crossing the border is someone who has lived a full life leading up to the moment of their crossing, it can be hard to remember that even if “racial problems” are less common statistically, there are still people who are victims to the crimes which make up even the smallest sliver of a pie chart.

In the church where Mr. Byrd’s funeral procession occurred, “South” showed how many people came to pay their respects for the deceased man and even showed some of the speeches his family members gave. James Byrd Jr. had touched every person in that room in some way, and it’s likely none of them were exactly the same after he was killed. In every single case similar to this there are undoubtedly people who are affected in large, rippling waves by a single person’s death. If that death is for something as senseless as animosity or blind hate due to skin color, then the pain it causes is equally as senseless.

The primary issue with this kind of blind hatred, unfortunately, is that it’s likely near impossible to imagine for some people. Due to things like one’s upbringing and education, many people have hate ingrained in their personality. It’s almost a futile effort to change the way someone feels at their core; human beings aren’t wired to accept that they’re being proven wrong in some way that contradicts what they’ve always known.

I’m not saying this justifies the actions those individuals might take, but I am saying that it’s an issue that could be worked on in the future. Children are wholly impressionable and malleable beings: “Tabula Rasa” as the Latin phrase suggests, blank slates waiting to be given words to follow. If children were taught compassion and tolerance rather than blind hate that may be passed down from generation to generation, perhaps we could demolish the barbaric practice of taking criminal actions for something as arbitrary as race.

But until the day comes that we can accomplish this, we should still do our best to acknowledge that individual lives are greatly afflicted by such actions. Whatever you might do with this knowledge isn’t up to me, however. It’s up to you.


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Stereotyping and the Mexican/American Border

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The border wall between the San Diego sewage treatment plant built to clean the Tijuana River (left) and the city of Tijuana, Baja California (right).  [Image Courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde]
“When Mexico sends its people, they aren’t sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime – They’re rapists.”

Donald Trump said this when he announced he was running for president in June 2015. It took him 18 seconds to say and I would be surprised if anyone has forgotten this blatantly racist statement.

Stereotypes, as a political tool, have been used to oppress people since before written records were even kept. They’re typically overgeneralized ideas about a group of people used to demean them and incite public ridicule or shunning. Undoubtedly, stereotypes have been used in terrible, awful ways throughout history. However, some – regardless of the way they’re used – are based on some aspect of reality.

This is the nature of overgeneralization. For example, a staple of Anti-Semitism is identifying a Jew as having a “giant nose”. Groups like the Nazis used this depiction (among other things) in their propaganda, which drove the Holocaust, an event too horrible for words. Yet, as a Jew myself, I’ve met many members of the tribe who exhibit the “giant nose” trait. It’s a plausible generalization, which makes it an easy target for stereotyping.

Just because a stereotype is sometimes true does not mean it’s the rule for all members of a group. Donald Trump followed up his ridiculous comments by attempting to soften them, saying “some, I assume, are good people.” At least he acknowledges exceptions to his insidious rules – but should something like this be considered an exception?

Chantal Akerman’s 2002 film “From the Other Side” talks to people on both sides of the Mexican/American border, people of all ages and sizes. While I felt the presentation of the 100-minute documentary was hard to get through, the power of the people interviewed on the Mexican side of the border was compelling.

Be it the elderly couple talking about their dead son or the young boy who failed at his attempt to cross the border alone in the growing security of a post-9/11 world; all the stories told shared a common thread, the struggle and loss of family in trying to find a better life through The American Dream. None of those whose stories were told are recognizable as the criminals or rapists Trump hoped to paint with his blanket statement.

That’s not to say there aren’t such criminals trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. With such a large basket, there are bound to be some bad eggs. This doesn’t mean we should judge the whole group like bad eggs are the norm, however. Every individual is different.

In Alfredo Corchado’s three part “Faces from the Border” series, published in the New Yorker in 2015 (Part 1 / 2 / 3 ), he shows that this mentality can apply not only to the immigrants, but to those guarding the border as well. Many who guard the border are children of Mexican immigrants themselves, yet they’re just as determined to deter illegal immigration. While there are some problem officers, as shown with the story of Margarita Crispin (a border guard who helped sneak drugs across the border), most are honorable people doing a difficult job to the best of their abilities. They all have their own stories just like the immigrants wanting to cross into the United States.

In a time of Globalization, where information is instantly available anywhere at any time, it can be difficult know what is truth or fiction. Entire groups of people can be summed up by statistics and figures on the World Wide Web, and anonymous people feel free to express their own thoughts and opinions without repercussion.  If we want to one-day move past stereotypes, anger and stigmatization, we need to remember that every individual has a unique life story, whether they’re anonymous or not. While lives may be similar in nature, it’s unfair to believe you know another solely due to things like their upbringing or skin color.


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