Mastering the Moving Image Part 1
How digital technology has opened up new access to film archive sources
In the UK, particularly England, considerable resource has gone into creating digital film archives. Just a small selection of these will include:
• British Pathe (www.britishpathe.com)
• BBC Creative Licence, Class Clips etc (http://creativearchive.bbc.co.uk/index.html)
• Film and Sound Archive (www.filmandsound.ac.uk)
• British Film Institute Screenonline (www.screenonline.org.uk)
There are many more worthy candidates for inclusion in addition to the above list. The Internet Archive (www.archive.org) is a must for anyone teaching American history whether they want film or any other kind of archive source. Back in England again, the National Archives is gradually working away at its huge film collection. There are some gems in some of its mainstream resources such as The Art of War (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/theartofwar/films/) with films ranging from the stirringly patriotic to the somewhat surreal. The National Archives education site Learning Curve will soon be publishing Focus On Film, which will contain an archive of film with ‘biographical’ details about each clip, an online editing tool and a range of activities which combine film used as source material with other types of original sources. Thus, students will soon be able to play the role of WW2 censors. They will watch WW2 propaganda films, assess them against the British government’s own criteria for such films (provided in its original form) and decide whether or not the film will be fit to broadcast.
The energy, commitment and finance which is going into such resources is surely recognition of the value of film in a digital format. In this digital form it is easily accessible to a wide range of audiences. It is also in a format which is easy to store, carry around and ultimately engage with in the process of authoring and re-authoring material.
Richard Jones has already written most eloquently about the processes and pedagogy of digital video http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=5947 and it is not the aim of this seminar to replicate what he has already covered but to complement it. Here the emphasis is not so much on the digital video which pupils create and edit, but in looking at moving image sources as historical sources, just like text and still images. Moving image sources may well be interpretations in their own right as well, of course. In fact it is this area of thinking which is developing into an interesting new field in historical research, that of film history. Of course film historians have been around for a long time but their numbers are now increasing and film history is becoming increasingly an interdisciplinary field. This has huge potential for the history teacher, as cultural analysis techniques used by students of film are adapted by historians to develop new insights into film as source material. We have traditionally looked at the end product of film for its meaning and intention. However, film historians can point us to issues such as budget, exposure qualities of film types, mechanical and technological issues and even the funding source of the film maker which expand our understanding of film as a source and allow us to develop more rounded and sophisticated analyses.
There are many excellent sources of reference for the history teacher interested in exploring the ways in which the methodologies of the cultural and the traditional historian can complement each other. Some recommendations are:
BFI Education http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/
• Mitchell and Kenyon Teaching Notes (free) http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/teaching/mknotes/
• The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon (book)
• Electric Edwardians (DVD) http://www.bfi.org.uk/booksvideo/video/det...nyon/index.html
• Moving Images in the Classroom – really excellent free resource http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/teaching/miic/
Film Education http://www.filmeducation.org/
Resources and study packs based on latest film releases eg Oliver Twist (http://www.filmeducation.org/olivertwist/index.html)
• Films and British National Identity by Jeffrey Richards (Manchester University Press)
• History of Film by David Parkinson (Thames & Hudson)
• British Historical Cinema by Claire Monk and Amy Sargeant eds (Routledge)
• The British At War: Cinema, State and Propaganda 1939-45 by James Chapman (IB Tauris)
Mastering the Moving Image Part 2
How digital technology has opened up new opportunities to work with film in the history classroom
So how does all of this fascinating and worthy information help us as teachers in the history classroom? I would contend that it faces the history teacher with a heavy burden which will nonetheless be a welcome one.
The burden is essentially that we need to make our students aware that film representations of historical events are not necessarily full and accurate accounts of events as they unfolded. In fact they rarely justify this description. Despite this, that is precisely what most young people (and older people) think film accounts are. In an age where the boundaries between media are becoming increasingly blurred, I believe that our commitment to educating our students makes it increasingly important that we attempt to instil a culture of critical awareness in all forms of media, not just the political cartoon and the source gobbet.
So why might this be a welcome burden? In short, because it involves almost no shift in our basic practice. We can continue to get students to think critically about historical sources. The welcome element is that our sources now include film, arguably the most accessible format for most students.
At the simplest level this is because in digital format film is now easy to store and retrieve. A CD ROM with a few choice clips is far more convenient than winding and rewinding through a VHS tape. In addition, digital media gives us crystal clear screen shots, or at the very least the image is clear and still when we hit the pause button. Better still, with clips digitised and placed on a network, VLE or web site the students gets his/her own TV player and can watch and re-watch a clip at his/her own pace. This was impossible before digital technology.
So how to make it happen? There are plenty of interesting techniques to make students think about the nature of film as a document of the past.
One of my favourites is a technique I call ‘Attentive Observation’. It is pretty simple – play a clip to a class, almost casually. Then ask them to work in pairs and recount every last detail, in the correct order. Ask some of them to act out parts of the scene. Then hold a feedback session, show the clip again and ask students to assess their own performance. I usually conclude by asking two questions:
• How would you have performed as a witness in a court case?
• Are you still sure that an eye witness testimony of an event is the most valuable and reliable type of source there is?
It’s usually an effective way of getting students to stop and think about the nature of evidence.
Another example used in the seminar was a clip which is available from the British Pathe web site. The clip is titled Adolf Hitler Assumes Bismarck’s mantle and its catalogue number is 695.31. In this clip we can ask the viewer to assess what it tells us about how powerful Hitler was in 1933. It contains familiar sequences of Nazi marches and Hitler campaigning. However, there is a fascinating sequence which shows Hitler’s first cabinet meeting. In our seminar we devoted a good few minutes to analysing his body language, the attitudes of the other cabinet members towards Hitler and the general impression he gave (which was of a man out of his depth). The clip allowed us to identify sequences which suggested strength and others which suggested weakness – just as we would ask students to work with a text. The final twist was to use QuickTime Pro (the upgraded version of QuickTime) to then select the contrasting sequences and paste them into a new QuickTime file, effectively using QuickTime Pro on video as we might use a word processor on a text.
Such examples show us the importance of applying the same methods we use on text and image sources to moving image sources. Whether we are looking at the British Pathe collection, the US Prelinger Archive, German Archive video (http://www.dhm.de/lemo/suche/videos.html) or any similar resource.
Film interpretations – the bumps in the carpet
In this section of the seminar we used an analogy known as bumps in the carpet. If you lay a covering on a completely smooth floor then the new covering will also be smooth. However, if there are bumps in the original floor then when the covering goes over the bumps show through. If we apply the analogy to history, which is more appropriate? How often does an historian work on a topic or theme which has never been visited before? Consciously or subconsciously, previous versions of a story have an influence on those who write the next version.
In a medium such as film this process is usually stronger and quicker than the accumulation of historical ‘bumps’. Study some film versions of Oliver Twist. In 1948 David Lean’s version of Oliver Twist created a dark world of mean, twisted Poor Law officials and a workhouse regime which was compared to Nazi camps. This image was then replicated in the 1968 and 2005 films. This is in stark contrast to what modern historians such as Professor Derek Fraser (The Evolution of the British Welfare State) say about the Poor Law:
Most research suggests that when we look at the overall picture the authorities usually… gave relief (food, clothes, money) without forcing people to enter the workhouse.
Indeed in the mid Victorian period something like 5 out of 6 paupers received relief without going into the workhouse.
Novels such as Oliver Twist … created an image of the workhouse as an instrument of cruelty and of the Poor Law authorities as being determined on crushing the poor.
When we look at the big picture there is little evidence to support this view. Paupers were better housed, better fed, and better cared for than the poor outside the workhouse. Poor Law officials were usually trying to raise living standards rather than make them worse. Where scandals occurred they were usually the result of local officials abusing the system.
Perhaps it is not the end of the world if a film creates a distorted popular interpretation of an historical event. But I would argue that it is a very serious matter if students are not aware that a film can achieve this effect. It can be countered relatively easily by looking at the film and studying the ‘real’ history and analysing the motives of the film maker. But without the guidance of teachers it is hard to see how students will reach this level of critical analysis themselves.
Finally, there is the question of how serious films might create and or perpetuate a particular view and whether our students are aware of this. We have seen the recent phenomenal success of the feature film length documentary The March of the Penguins. Most young people probably see this as a cute film about penguins. However, its success in the US has been at least in part rooted in the fact that a Christian Right element has decided that the familial strength of the penguins in adversity demonstrates, through nature, that the nuclear family is natural and right. How far is the leap from here to deciding that any other kind of social unit is wrong and then taking measures accordingly? We have seen Morgan Spurlock’s diatribes against McDonalds in Super Size Me play up their scientific credentials in order to support the attack on big business. The motivation is different but is there much difference in technique between this and the Nazi film I Accuse in which a doctor murders his genetically ill wife but is cleared in a court for having done the right thing.
It is not hard to trace this process. Through Blackadder or films such as All Quiet on the Western Front we have seen the creation of the interpretation in which British commanders in the Great War were incompetent buffoons. How does this sit with the hundreds of thousands filing past Haig’s coffin in 1929 to pay their respects when the general died? This footage can be seen in the Pathe clip 714.31 Britain Mourns A Great Soldier.
There are similar contrasts between portrayals of the Women’s Suffrage movement at different times. Latter day portrayals tend to be made by admirers of the movement. As a result they play up the bravery of the campaigners and the obstruction of the government in achieving women’s suffrage. A look at contemporary film suggests that the major opposition to women’s suffrage was public hostility but even more prevalent is the sense that the general public simply did not take them seriously and saw them as a fringe bunch of cranks. An excellent example of how a latter day layer has been placed over a film can be seen in the Pathe film 2261.01 Emancipation of Women . The opening 40 seconds introduce the subject and present us with the assertion that the women in the clips shown are more subdued. But are they? Watch the footage without the commentary and it is hard to see this.
There are many more examples of approaches and insights which can be developed along these lines of course, and it would be an interesting exercise to start collecting them on the threads of this seminar.