Film and Historical Thinking

I actually had to go back and read what I had written about historical thinking (I’m battling post-vacation brain and am also leaving for a conference on Thursday, so I’m a bit preoccupied). In the previous module, following Pegler-Gordon, I talked about using images to get at the complexity of history, and I think film also does this in several ways. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like film is visceral in a way that texts are usually not. It can be more immersive, and that can help students think about the past without engaging in presentism. Film doesn’t dissolve the “jagged edges” of the past, but I think it can make them easier to approach, if that makes sense.

Both fiction and non-fiction film can provide students with details about material culture of the time, even if it is somewhat stylized. Both can speak to ideology, dominant discourse, power relations, and so on, or what Seixas calls the “moral frame” of the time period/culture in which they were produced (Toplin is rather negative about cultural/media studies approaches, but I tend to approach films as texts and with the understanding that they have numerous, contradictory meanings, and that those meanings aren’t constrained by the creator’s intentions. Nor do audiences necessarily receive the same meanings or those intended by the creator). This approach, which I used in classes I taught as a graduate student, is approaching film as primary sources for historical research.

Most of the readings, however, are about using historical films to teach about historical narrative and representation, and really about the way we construct history. This is really apparent in how one of Seixas’s students, once she had seen The Searchers, began to understand the previously transparent moral frame of Dances With Wolves as historical and contextual as well. This intellectual move is crucial to historical thinking, and might also be considered a threshold concept, since it undergirds historical work and is likely to be transformative. (As a sidebar, I thought it was funny how everyone hated The Searchers, because it’s an amazing film that really speaks to the Western as a genre, nationalism, and race).

The other element of teaching history with film that might deepen historical inquiry has to do with emotion and empathy. I can’t remember which author wrote about this, but Wineburg probably touched on it, but I think that film (and as Zemon Davis describes, poetry, and also other forms of literature) might help us empathize with people from the past. Zemon Davis specifically mentions Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, which I think does this beautifully (and medieval history is particularly alien). I can’t think of other films at the moment that do this, but literary examples readily come to mind: Beloved, The Things They Carried, The Night Watch, Hild. Obviously, these fictional representations are not totally “accurate” or “true,” but the empathic engagement with the past that they induce is valuable.

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