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Using an interdisciplinary approach, Film, History and Memory broadens the focus from 'history', the study of past events, to 'memory', the processes – individual, generational, collective or state-driven – by which meanings are attached to the past.




This book explores the relationship between film and history by considering how the medium of film shapes, reinforces or subverts our understanding of the past. We do this by widening our focus from ‘history’, the study of past events, to encompass ‘memory’, the processes by which meaning is attached to the past. This approach acknowledges that film’s impact lies less in its empirical qualities than in its powerful capacity to influence public consciousness, mould collective memory and retrieve suppressed or marginalised histories.
Jennie M. Carlsten, Fearghal McGarry

1. A Very Long Engagement: The Use of Cinematic Texts in Historical Research

Historians who base their research principally on cinematic texts may, at times, feel uneasy with regard to the epistemological foundations of their research. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, to study films, or principally films rather than written documents, means to go against a long and illustrious tradition of historiographical studies which normally privileges written texts over visual evidence as primary sources for historical research. Secondly, within the range of visual sources, historians have for a long time been especially suspicious of cinematic texts. Finally, a universally accepted, coherent and comprehensive methodology for studying film as a source for historical analysis has not yet been formulated. Such awareness accounts for the title of this essay: cinema and history have had a very long engagement, but a proper wedding has yet to be celebrated. It is worth noting that the long-term diffidence of historians towards film is not entirely unreasonable. The use of cinematic texts as historical sources presents difficult theoretical problems with respect to their selection, use and methods of analysis. In the mid-1970s, historian Paul Smith, while advocating the use of films in historical research, provided a succinct summary of the issues troubling professional historians:
[film] can quite easily be faked, or put together in such a way as to distort reality, give a tendentious picture, and practise upon the emotions of the spectator.
Gianluca Fantoni

2. Screening European Heritage: Negotiating Europe’s Past via the ‘Heritage Film’

In European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, Thomas Elsaesser observes that ‘European cinema distinguishes itself from Hollywood and Asian cinemas by dwelling so insistently on the (recent) past.’1 Even if one takes the briefest of looks at the most celebrated European films internationally, Elsaesser would appear to have a point. From Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) to The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010), historical dramas play a key role within national film cultures across the continent, acting as international ‘shop windows’ that can help support not only the domestic film industry but also the wider heritage and tourist sectors by attracting international visitors to the country. At the same time, such films can generate major debates at home on the role of the past in contemporary national identity construction and the problematic sedimentation of cinematic representations of history in collective memory. What forms has this enduring engagement with the continent’s history taken across different European film cultures? How and why do historical dramas reach the large and small screens across Europe, and what is their role in the promotion of European heritage, however this might be defined? These are the questions that are the focus of this chapter, which results from an AHRC Care for the Future project run by the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds and B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies.
Axel Bangert, Paul Cooke, Rob Stone

3. Confronting Silence and Memory in Contemporary Spain: The Grandchildren’s Perspective

The relationship between memory and history in contemporary Spain remains controversial. In spite of the current obsession with memory, materialized both in cultural production and in media debates over whether to acknowledge or forget the past, the lack of a political consensus on the issue points towards a ‘memory crisis’.2 Seventy-five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and nearly 40 years after Franco’s death, Spain has not fully resolved the fratricidal conflict that started in 1936, or successfully dealt with its violent traumatic past. Throughout most of the 20th century, the conflict has been remembered — or disremembered — in a very different manner in each historical period, depending on the political needs of the time. This, in turn, has influenced the collective memory and the construction of a national identity based on a division between the ‘victors’ (Nationalists) and the ‘defeated’ (Republicans) created by Francoist discourse. After Franco’s death, the promulgation of the 1977 Amnesty Law and the symbolic ‘pact of oblivion’ negotiated in the transition period postponed the settling of scores for war and post-war crimes, prolonging an indefinite silence for the ‘defeated’. However, democracy — with its consequent freedom of speech — gave rise to a fruitful cultural production that problematized Spain’s relationship with its past, initiating a remarkable transformation of its collective national memory.
Natalia Sanjuán Bornay

4. The Enchantment and Disenchantment of the Archival Image: Politics and Affect in Contemporary Portuguese Cultural Memories

In recent years, memory studies have begun focussing on embodied memories rather than on places and sites of memory. This has occurred at the same time as an ‘affective turn’ in cultural theory, in which the body is understood, not in terms of constructionism, but in terms of ‘intensities’ that represent non-cognitive disruptions and discontinuities in conscious experience.1 Memory’s bodies, especially in contexts such as those of ‘the disappeared’, are frequently objects rather than subjects: initially the objects of torture and suffering, they become, through remembrance, the objects of others’ gazes (and at times others’ politicized manipulations) at the same time as they elicit affective and emotional responses from those who view them. They are also frequently the objects of transnational gazes, as memory’s images now circulate globally, evoking both national- and cultural-specific traumas as well as becoming instrumentally linked to other, parallel or comparable, but not identical, traumas. The global valency of the term, ‘the disappeared’, which originated with Southern Cone Latin American dictatorships, illustrates the point. The phrase now generally evokes notions of illegal detention and forced disappearance, as well as the emotive situation of relatives and family members left dealing with the aftermath of irrecuperable and possibly legally unproveable loss, which is frequently crystalized in mug shots or identity photos of those missing.
Alison Ribeiro de Menezes

5. Foundational Films: The Memorialization of Resistance in Italy, France, Belarus and Yugoslavia

Film, according to Robert Rosenstone, has become the ‘chief medium for carrying the stories our culture tells itself’.1 This affirmation has special relevance for the first half of the 20th century, given the popularity of historical films in this era, and the emergence of cinema as the most popular form of mass entertainment throughout urban Western Europe. In spite of their popularity, or perhaps because of it, the use of films as historical sources remains contested, and we are accustomed to debates that pit cinematic adaptations against the events on which they are based. Normally, in these contests, the popular media is deemed unsuitable, limited or simplistic, even when allowing for format and time constraints. In addition, two schools of thought treat films differently. While film history tends to assess the documentary evidence related to a film’s production and reception, film scholars seek to elucidate its cinematic ‘language’, reading closely its photographic construction and technical details. This essay merges both approaches to study a doubly partisan subject: civilian resistance to fascism in the Second World War.
Mercedes Camino

6. Amnesty with a Movie Camera

Witness often structures discourses of law, memory and history. As a process of looking, witness binds the relationship between vision and truth in testimony, and also in the narration of history. The camera has similar evidentiary roles and provides valuable source material for the historian’s work. The Soviet filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, links the camera’s function to the discovery of truth. Moreover, Vertov’s statement in the epigraph on cinema’s potential posits that the medium remakes the present through a consideration of its place in the future. Its function becomes narrative and political. Yet we know that the potential for error in the courtroom, like the process of ‘editing’, demonstrates that the histories these two discourses construct are sites of narrativity that run counter to the pure objectivity they frequently purport to have. Subsequently the relationship between truth and witness does not appear as stable as often presented.
Andrew J. Hennlich

7. History, Fiction and the Politics of Corporeality in Pablo Larraín’s Dictatorship Trilogy

The historical film — defined here as a fiction film based on historical events — commits a sacrilege according to conventional wisdom: it transgresses the boundaries between documenting history as a verifiable truth, expressed in and confirmed by the use of archive, and fictionalizing this history into a fantasy, considered subjective and therefore somewhat unreliable. Within academia, this notion of a strict line of separation between history and fiction has, of course, been thoroughly debunked. Maybe Raul Hilberg’s rhetorical question puts it best: If we cannot write poetry any more after Auschwitz, why should writing history be possible?1
Nike Jung

8. Remember 1688? The Draughtsman’s Contract, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and Public Memory

Traditionally, the origins of the modern British state have been traced to the sequence of events known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Leading an invasion from the Netherlands, Prince William of Orange displaced the reigning monarch, James II. In his absence, James was adjudged to have abdicated, but he fought to regain the throne. With the final military defeat of James at the battle of Aughrim in July 1691, William ruled jointly with his wife, James’s daughter Mary II.1 Under their reign, the French-style state which James envisaged, and had begun to construct, was dismantled. In its place came institutions which came to be regarded as characteristically British. The narrative established around these developments, popularized by a long line of writers including John Locke, Edmund Burke, Thomas Babington Macaulay and G. M. Trevelyan, depicts the national polity taking a decisive step into modernity while honouring ancient traditions of liberty.
James Ward

9. Not Thinking Clearly: History and Emotion in the Recent Irish Cinema

The Irish narrative cinema of the last 20 years has been preoccupied with themes of loss and grieving, often setting stories of individual mourning within the context of wider national traumas. Dealing with such cataclysms as the Irish Civil War, institutional abuse, mass emigration, the Northern Irish Troubles and the societal ruptures of the Celtic Tiger (the economy of the Irish Republic), these recent films provide a site for confronting and negotiating the troubled past. In this essay, I explore the idea of an ‘emotional reading’ of historical films, using a few of these recent films as examples.
Jennie M. Carlsten

10. Music and Montage: Punk, Speed and Histories of the Troubles

Emphasising the importance of speed to the moving image, Andre Bazin noted that speed is implied by ‘a multiplicity of shots of ever-decreasing length’.1 Within the montage sequence, speed has a particular impact for an audience. Ken Dancyger notes how, over the last 30 years, the montage sequence has been shaped by the arrival of MTV but also by earlier forms, such as experimental filmmaking, and television commercials.2 The centrality of pace in the music track provides the style for the montage itself. Dancyger says the montage sequence is abundant in terms of style, and that style is placed above narrative within these sequences. Time and place become less important within the montage sequence; time can be any time, and place can be any place. The music video creates a feeling state, synthesizing human emotion from the music. It can be dreamlike with no narrative continuum. Pace, subjectivity and close-ups are used to intensify the montage sequence. Dancyger argues that a faster pace causes events to feel more important to an audience.
Liz Greene

11. Reflections on What the Filmmaker Historian Does (to History)

At a certain age, an age I have reached, the impulse is less to do new research and/or scholarship than to take the time to reflect on the scholarship that one and others have done in recent decades. Much of my own scholarly activity in the last quarter century has been devoted to the topic of the history film, by which I mean the dramatic motion picture that focuses on verifiable people, events and movements set in the past. I distinguish between the history film and the more common term, the ‘historical film’, because the latter can also refer to any important film that has been made in the past. Sometimes a film can be both. Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), for example, falls into both categories. As a history film, it is a thinly veiled biography of powerful newspaper publisher, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, William Randolph Hearst. As a historical work, it is famous for its use of multiple perspectives on the past (long before Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated film, Rashomon (1950)), its fragmented and contradictory way of telling a story, its special deep-focus photography and its luscious use of black-and-white.
Robert A. Rosenstone


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