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Using Film to Explore Historical Interpretations

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Using film to explore historical interpretations

Dale Banham (Head of History, Holbrook High School, Suffolk) and Russell Hall (Head of English, Kesgrave High School, Suffolk)

Why is this important?

(1) A powerful medium – ‘A weapon that cries out to be used’ (Trotsky)

(2) Myth-slaying - Guarding against ‘History by Hollywood’ and superficial representations of key individuals in history

"The destruction of political or social myths dressed up as history has long been part of the historian’s professional duties." (Hobsbawm)

(3) Critical thinking skills

(4) Pupil motivation

DEPTH STUDY (6 weeks): Why is JFK remembered so positively?

Lesson 1: The Hook – Oliver Stone’s JFK

How does the director make his audience care about JFK?

Teacher led, step by step analysis of the opening 5 minutes of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Step 1: Explore the use of music. Pupils listen to the music that opens the film (block out the visual image). What tone does the music set? (Pupils select from word/phrase bank)

Step 2: Analyse the commentary. Play the rest of the extract – continuing to block out the visual images. Study tone, style and use of loaded language.

Step 3: Examine Stone’s choice of visual images. Play the extract again – this time concentrate on the images Stone has selected. Focus on:

* the overall message being presented (again – pupils could select from a word/phrase bank)

* the selective use of colour. Why does the director want these images to stand out?

* the way in which the director positions two unrelated clips next to each other to create a new meaning


Question 1:

Study the first 5 minutes of the film ‘JFK’. How does the director make his audience care about JFK?

Lesson 2: Critical Thinking

Why does the director want to create such a positive impression?

* Brainstorm: What motives might the director have for creating such a positive impression of JFK? (Encourage pupils to think about the aims of a filmmaker – to educate, inform, entertain, persuade, make money?)

* It is important that pupils realise that a film such as JFK is not simply entertainment. As it entertains, it persuades. In fact, if the audience is not persuaded, it will lose interest.

* Pupils find out more about the director. Study a brief biography of Oliver Stone and an interview - in which he discusses his past, political standpoint, his views on history and the role of the filmmaker.

And I'm looking back on my life and I realize that the toll that I had to pay, or that my generation had to pay, to get through that period was unnecessary. It was unnecessary because it was all a series of expedient political decisions by Johnson and Nixon. And it changed the course of our lives and time forever. And it's hard to get back, because once you've lost that spot of innocence, perhaps, that you had when Kennedy got killed and then Nixon performed his acts, his sinister designs, all that shaped us to the way we are now.

Movies have to make money, you've got to make them so they're exciting, they're gripping, people want to go see them. That's a very hard thing to do because people are more and more jaded, it seems, from the hours of television and the speed of modern life.

I am not trying to be a historian and a dramatist; I'm a dramatist, a dramatic historian, or one who does a dramatic interpretation of history.

Kennedy would have grown, was growing in office. It's clear that he had a great sense of humor. It's clear that he had an ability to listen to people. He went through hell on Cuba; he learned. He said so himself… No question that he would have gotten more power in '64. He would have won and he would have consolidated his power. He would have kicked out a few of these people … he would have grown. And I think we would have had what Gorbachev and Reagan achieved. Khrushchev had also grown, it's an interesting parallel. Khruschev's an interesting man. These two guys would have come together. Instead it's interesting that Kennedy falls, Khrushchev follows within a few years. That was the early détente attempt, and it would have worked. We would have saved trillions of dollars. The world today would be different. Kennedy would have been a great leader.

Taken from ‘History and the Movies. Conversation with Oliver Stone’ - by Harry Kreisler (17 April and 27 June, 1997)


Question 2:

Use your own knowledge and Sources B (short biography of Oliver Stone) and C (interview with Oliver Stone) to explain why Oliver Stone wanted to create a positive impression of JFK in the first five minutes of his film.

Analysing Interpretations

* Explain that most people follow the Oliver Stone line – ie – JFK the hero. Reinforce this by getting pupils to interview parents/older relatives – How do they remember JFK? Make sure pupils record the words they use to describe JFK and use these at the start of the next lesson. Display words on a positive to negative continuum.

* Introduce the ‘BIG QUESTION’: Why is JFK remembered so positively? Use previous knowledge to brainstorm reasons why people become heroes or heroines (see Henry V example). Then explore possible reasons:

(1) ACHIEVEMENTS: Is his record as President enough to explain his heroic status? (Lessons 3&4)

Start by exploring what happened during his presidency. Provide an overview of the problems JFK faced as President (Foreign Policy – Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam. Domestic Policy – Congress, Civil Rights, Poverty, Economy, Organised Crime, Space Programme). Exploit the OVERVIEW LURKING WITHIN THE DEPTH (Cold War, Civil Rights, US political system).

Pupils then carry out structured research (allow them to choose their method – eg - linear notes, Sorting Frame or Mind Map) into how JFK dealt with these problems. Follow up with whole class discussion: How effectively did JFK deal with the problems he faced whilst in office. End by asking: Does what happened during his presidency explain why JFK is remembered so positively?

(2) IMAGE: Did glamour overshadow quality? (Lesson 5)·

Explore the way in which JFK changed politics – the ‘new politics’, the first TV president, spin and manipulation of the media. Discuss – Do we remember image or reality? Is this a case of an individual being remembered not for what he was as a politician but for what he appeared to be? When we remember JFK do we remember policies or an image? JFK was the first ‘TV president’. His presidency seems to mark the start of a new era in politics; an era in which image and gestures were more important than policies and politics became a form of show business.

To be sure, the Kennedys have had - and continue to have - a political impact on the nation.... But politics hasn't been this family's calling card in the mass culture for some time. Even in the aggregate the Kennedys have never had the political impact of Martin Luther King Jr., FDR, or even Reagan. If President Kennedy is still revered today, it's more because of his glamorous style and because he died young than for any specific accomplishments.

"The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys," by Steven Stark (January, 1994)

Did the reason why he became so revered have more to do with his glamorous style and because he died young than any specific achievements as President? As an individual Kennedy was ‘the most glittering political hero of the modern age’ (Walden). Consider the extent to which people had been blinded by his magnetism and charisma. This is the argument put forward by Seymour M. Hersh (The Dark Side of Camelot, 1997)

I began writing this book knowing that it would inevitably move into a sensitive area: When is it relevant to report on the private life of a public man? The central finding that emerged from five years of reporting, and more than a thousand interviews with people who knew and worked with John F. Kennedy, is that Kennedy's private life and personal obsessions - his character - affected the affairs of the nation and its foreign policy far more than has ever been known. This is a book about a man whose personal weaknesses limited his ability to carry out his duties as president. It is also a book about the power of beauty. It tells of otherwise strong and self-reliant men and women who were awed and seduced by Kennedy's magnetism, and who competed with one another to please the most charismatic leader in our nation's history. Many are still blinded today.

(3) The Assassination: What impact did it have in the short-term (Lesson 6)

* Pupils explore public reaction to the death.

Ted Sorenson stated:

Countless individuals have noted that the President's death affected them even more deeply than the death of their own parents. The reason, I believe, is that the latter situation most often represented a loss of the past - while the assassination of President Kennedy represented an incalculable loss of the future.

The Public Papers of the Presidents: John F Kennedy (1963)

Those who the gods favour die young? - Compare to more recent events – eg – Diana and the lives and deaths of Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison. It's not simply that an untimely death fulfills a romantic image. Dying young freezes the stars at their peak: like the promise of Hollywood itself, they remain forever young and beautiful - the perfect icon.

Most important, however, were the timing and circumstances of Kennedy's death. Had Kennedy lived, he might be remembered as a successful or an unsuccessful president, but not as a legendary hero. His untimely death and the dramatic conditions surrounding it gave rise to his legend: in mythic style a young king promising a new world was killed in a public place in the presence of his beautiful queen, and his realm changed forever.

Political Paranoia as Cinematic Motif: Stone's "JFK" – R.S. Robins and J.M. Post

* Explain how Kennedy’s tragic and shocking death had influenced what has been written about him. After his assassination America felt a profound sense of loss and a great deal of sympathy for the family left behind. In the immediate aftermath the media were highly selective, exaggerating his achievements and ignoring his mistakes.

* Investigate the role played by Jackie Kennedy – creation of the Camelot myth. Discuss – To what extent did Jackie rescue JFK’s reputation? The Camelot myth came into existence later than most people think—it was only after Kennedy’s assassination that Jackie offered the metaphor as a way to characterize the Kennedy years.

On a cold November day, only days after her husband’s murder, Jackie summoned Theodore H. White, a noted journalist and loyal friend of the Kennedy family, to the compound at Hyannisport, Mass. She insisted that White publish her statements in Life magazine, which had chronicled her marriage to JFK, and their life together— including the children and the pets. She knew the popular weekly was capable of profound image-making.

In the exclusive interview, Jackie recounted for the first and last time the events of the assassination in Dallas, providing graphic details of the shooting and vivid descriptions of the drive. In the margins of his notepad, White noted “her calm voice and total recall” of the events.

Then she confessed, “I’m so ashamed of myself - all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy.”

“Camelot,” the Broadway musical starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, had opened in December 1960, a few weeks after Kennedy was elected president. The Kennedys had attended the show and loved it.

Jackie told White that at night, they would listen to a recording of the musical on their Victrola before they went to sleep. Jack’s favorite song came at the very end of the musical, and his favorite lines were, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

“There’ll be great presidents again—and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me—but there’ll never be another Camelot again,” she said. White’s notes, now known as the “Camelot Papers,” suggest that this was anything but an off-hand reference: “all she could repeat was, ‘Tell people there will never be that Camelot again.’” Jackie was nervous about how history would remember her husband, so she enlisted White’s help, to “rescue Jack from all these ‘bitter people’ who were going to write about him in history.”

She wanted Americans to remember that her husband was “a man of magic,” that his presidency was truly special, and that the era was “a brief, shining moment”— just like the song said.

Extract from ‘Jackie as Myth-maker’ by Amanda Endewelt (ABCNEWS.com)

(3) The Assassination: What impact has the controversy over the assassination had on JFK’s reputation? (Lesson 7)

* Explore the controversy surrounding the assassination. When the Warren Commission published their report in 1964 most Americans believed its findings. Today most Americans believe that JFK was killed as a result of a conspiracy. Why have interpretations changed so much since 1964?

* Pupils investigate how and why interpretations have changed since the Warren Commission’s report in 1964 - combination of new evidence (Zapruder Footage, Dallas Police Tapes) & changing attitudes and values. Pupils use a living graph to identify the key factors that caused interpretations to change. Once again – exploit the overview lurking within the depth – impact of Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-gate on American attitudes, culture and beliefs. JFKs assassination is a kind of mirror, which reflects the researchers (and societies) own preoccupations and prejudices.

What caused interpretations of the assassination to change?

64 – Warren Commision’s report – accepted, supported by media

64-66 – series of books attacking report: 64 – Joesten’s ‘Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy?’, 65 – Fox’s ‘The Unanswered Questions’, 66 - Pophin’s ‘The Second Oswald’, Thompson’s ‘Six Seconds in Dallas’ and most famously – Epstein’s ‘Inquest’ and Mark Lane’s ‘Rush to Judgement’. As a result attitudes start to change.·

67 – Garrison case – increased media publicity, accelerates availability of materials on the case (eg – Zapruder Footage)

66-76 – increased opposition to war in Vietnam. This changes the political context and radicalises large numbers of Americans. Also increased revelations against US intelligence and security services. CIA exposed – over their covert operations in domestic politics. Information became increasingly available about the US intelligence and security services. [During this period they came to dominate ‘conspiracists’ thinking about the assassination.] During this period it was also discovered that US policy on Vietnam was changed just two days after JFK’s death and that this had been concealed. Blame therefore shifted further towards the military/industrial complex.

Early 70s – Watergate (President Nixon’s attempt to bug the offices of the Democrats) opens many American’s eyes to the possibility of a conspiracy involving leading figures in the establishment. More books – for example Anson’s ‘They’ve killed the President’.

70s – Ford establishes Rockefeller Commission to investigate CIA activity in US.

Late 70s/Early 80s – Formation of HSCA – Senate investigation (but made up of Congressmen with nothing to gain – no political profit). Sprague sacked when not allowed larger research team. BUT discovery of acoustic evidence – Dallas Police Tapes – conclusion JFK probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. Chief Counsel for HSCA hints at mob involvement. More books on the assassination (eg -Anthony Summers’ ‘Conspiracy’ and Lifton’s ‘Best Evidence’ - which looked closely at the medical and forensic evidence and in particular the initial statements made by doctors at Parkland hospital, Dallas.

1991 – The JFK film is released by Oliver Stone. One film changes history? One film creates history? Film had a massive impact. It rekindled interest in the assassination when major factual TV documentaries and 100s of books had not! It puts the assassination back on the front page and led in 1994 to the formation of the Assassination Archives Review Board (created by Congress). New documents are released.

* Reasons for changing nature of historical interpretations (new evidence but really changing attitudes and values of the interpreters/society at the time in which the interpretation was produced – (link to King John)

* Explore the link between conspiracy theories and positive interpretations of JFK - How has the controversy over the assassination changed the way we look at JFK? – ie – JFK the great, progressive, liberal martyr – killed because of the threat he represented to the establishment. Those who argue the case for conspiracy in the JFK Assassination, frequently do so from the perspective that when JFK was killed, a great symbol of Progressive liberalism was snuffed out, and with his death, the hopes of revolutionary "progressive" reform in American society was snuffed out as well. Always, JFK is seen as one who would have been at home with the radicals of the late 1960s who marched against the war in Vietnam and demanded an end to the Cold War, and who argued for more action on social justice issues of civil rights and poverty. To the likes of an Oliver Stone, the murder of JFK represented a conspiracy by reactionary forces who wanted to stop the progressive ideas of greater action for social justice and the end of the Cold War from being implemented. As conspiracy author Jim Marrs put it:

But it may be worth considering what kind of America we might have today if President Kennedy had lived. Imagine the United States if there had been no divisive Vietnam War, with its attendant demonstrations, riots, deaths, and loss of faith in government. There may not have been the scandals of Watergate, other political assassinations, or the Iran-Contra Pentagon-CIA attempt at a "secret government." Detente with Communist Russia and China might have come years earlier, saving hundreds of millions of wasted defense dollars--dollars that could have been put to use caring for the needy and cleaning up the environment. Picture a nation where no organized-crime syndicate gained control over such divergent areas of national life as drugs, gambling, labor unions, politicians, and even toxic waste disposal. (Jim Marrs, Crossfire, p. 589).

To what extent can films such as ‘JFK’ change history? (Lesson 8)·

* Pupils examine Stone’s portrayal of the Garrison trial – focussing on 2 key scenes (use of Zapruder film and the closing speech). The Zapruder film is integral to JFK. According to Scalia, Stone said ‘The only thing I want people to remember when they walk out of this movie is the Zapruder film and to remember back and to the left’.

* Explore reactions to the film (showed how truly powerful the film medium can be – caused a nation to re-examine its history and led to the release of important documents)

Discuss - How soon after JFK’s death could the Oliver Stone film have been made? Having looked at the events in the thirty years after his death in the previous lesson, pupils can reflect on the way values and attitudes changed, and pinpoint the earliest possible moment at which a film embodying this interpretation could have been made.

Lesson 9: Extended Thinking - Pulling it all together: Formation, Organisation & Communication of Ideas

Class Debate – Why has JFK been remembered so positively? What was the key factor?

Extended Writing (pulling together what has been covered in lessons 3-8):

Question 3: ‘The nature of JFK’s death is the main reason his reputation grew in the years after the assassination.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Lessons 10-12: Creative Thinking – The Big End Product: How should JFK be remembered?

Discuss - How should JFK be remembered?

Pupils produce their own 2-minute summary of JFK combining visual images and commentary. Storyboard in pairs first – then share ideas with another pair and form a production team of 4. Pupils present their ideas using PowerPoint or DVD/Video.

Using a Learning Log

In order to tease out the learning it was important for pupils to reflect on their own decisions made during the planning and production stages of filmmaking. Our aim was to make explicit the mental processes involved in the ‘production’ of history. Pupils kept a ‘learning log’ to reflect on what they had been doing. It was the unpicking of the choices that pupils had made that was central to their learning. Why had they chosen a particular combination of visual images? Why had they chosen to include certain details in their commentary but to ignore others? When it came to editing their film, why had they cut some sections of the narrative but left others?

Follow-up class discussion highlighting differences in their interpretations and possible reasons for this. Focus on:

* Why interpretations differ and how historical interpretations depend on the selection of sources.

* The issues involved in trying to make history as objective as possible.

It was interesting to explore conflicts that had arisen between their roles as historian and as filmmaker. How did they ensure that their interpretation had dramatic impact, involved and engaged their audience? As film director, did they feel the need to cut any details that an historian would want to leave in? Pupils were also encouraged to analyse the films made by other production teams. Each ‘film’ was very different. Why was this? We discussed the nature of the differences in their interpretations and possible reasons for this.

Why is it important to allow enough time for this?

* A creative end-product - film-making can inspire pupils - it can get them thinking creatively and it can help them to get ‘inside’ some of the factors that shape historical interpretations.

* The depth study had come full circle, starting with pupils analysing a film interpretation of JFK and ending with them producing their own. Having shown them the tricks of the film-makers trade, to deny these pupils the opportunity to put their new found knowledge into action would have been much like showing a child a sweet shop and then closing the door.

* History as reconstruction - Limiting pupils’ films to two minutes was crucial. Faced with a wealth of visual source material (photographs and ‘news’ clips) and a broad knowledge of JFK’s presidency, pupils were forced to make choices. This helped pupils understand something of the historian’s method and to see ‘history’ as ‘reconstruction’. All histories omit facts because there are too many facts to put in any account. Historians constantly make both conscious judgements and unconscious choices about what facts to omit in order to craft their book, film or documentary into some length and shape that can be managed. Pupils had to make the same decisions. They were therefore able to see that what the historian produces is no more than an attempted reconstruction of past events and that all historical interpretations are made up of differing patterns and blends fact, fiction, imagination and point of view.

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Thank you for this thought-provoking seminar. I have taught John F. Kennedy for over 25 years. It is one of those few subjects that seems to automatically fascinate students. It is a great story and the assassination plays a part in this. However, students seem to have a strong impression of the man before the subject is studied. In the vast majority of cases the student would have read very little about Kennedy. I suspect most of this comes from the images they have seen. As you have pointed out, these images have been presented as to persuade people to interpret the man in a certain way. This is also true of other figures such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, etc. However, these characters do not play an important role in understanding the recent political past (unless that is you believe John and Robert Kennedy arranged the murder of Marilyn Monroe).

I would therefore argue that Dale and Russell’s approach is vital when studying the subject of John Kennedy. In a way, students have to unlearn the myth before they can tackle the reality.

As Dale points out, Jackie Kennedy played an important role in developing this image of her husband. Three months ago, William Manchester, the author of Portrait of a President (1962) and The Death of a President (1967), died. It emerged that the second of these books was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy. However, she was very unhappy with the finished manuscript and managed to get Manchester to make several changes. Jacqueline was particularly upset by Manchester's portrayal of the relationship between her husband and Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite the author's willingness to make several changes (including the removal of the opening chapter) and to tone down his criticisms of Johnson she was still not happy with the final version on the book. Jacqueline tried to stop the book being published and offered Look Magazine $1m to kill its serialization (the magazine had paid $665,000 for the right to serialize the book).

Why did Jackie do this? Her official reason was that any criticism of LBJ would hurt Robert Kennedy’s chances of becoming president. Manchester believed that the real reason was that Jackie was concerned that the public would see LBJ as the power behind the throne.

Jackie was not alone in trying to preserve a certain image of JFK. His brothers also played an important role in this. A couple of days after the assassination of JFK (26th November), Grant Stockdale, a close friend of the Kennedys, went to see them in Washington. According to Stockdale’s lawyer, William Frates, he had important information about the assassination. However, Robert and Edward Kennedy were uninterested in this information. On 2nd December, 1963, Stockdale jumped (or was pushed) from his office on the thirteenth story of the Dupont Building in Miami. His wife said he committed suicide because he was depressed about the death of JFK. However, Stockdale’s daughter recently revealed that her mother knew that her husband had been murdered but was forced to make this statement to the press (she was told her daughter would be murdered if she did not follow these instructions).

The Kennedy family have willingly taken part in the cover-up of JFK’s assassination. It has been claimed that a deal was done with those responsible. What the Kennedy obtained from this deal was the preservation of JFK’s image. The Kennedy’s were particularly keen to hide JFK’s role in the CIA’s Executive Action operation (a plan to remove unfriendly foreign leaders from power). This included the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of South Vietnam. It also included Operation Freedom, a plan to assassinate Fidel Castro (under the management of Robert Kennedy).

As Dale points out, JFK’s image has been fixed in time. It of course has to remembered that JFK was extremely popular at the time of his death. People felt that the way JFK dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis had saved the world from nuclear war (at the time it was estimated that 40 million would die on the first day of this war). JFK was seen as the man who had stood up to a communist bully and won. The image of JFK as the strong man willing to take on the Soviets (as portrayed in the 1960 presidential campaign) had finally been established (he was of course seen very differently after the Bay of Pigs disaster).

It was many years later before historians obtained information that showed that this image was not correct. JFK had actually done a deal and granted the Soviets what they had been demanding (the removal of US nuclear missiles based in Turkey and Italy).

Documents were revealed last year that adds further information to the real image of JFK. Interestingly, it supports the image portrayed by Oliver Stone in his film JFK. These documents reveal that Kennedy was involved in secret peace talks with the Soviets in 1963 (so secret that an attempt was made to keep knowledge of these talks from the CIA – this failed of course as they were bugging his negotiators).

In November, 1963, JFK was attempting to negotiate an end to the Cold War. This included a withdrawal from Vietnam. However, as the documents reveal, JFK believed that if this information got out, he would lose the 1964 presidential election. Therefore, it was only after his re-election, that this information could be released. JFK’s close friend and political adviser claims “Kennedy had told me in the spring of 1963 that he could not pull out of Vietnam until he was reelected, "So we had better make damned sure I am reelected." ... At a White House reception on Christmas eve, a month after he succeeded to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson told the Joint Chiefs: "Just get me elected, and then you can have your war."

As Dale points out in his seminar, the key to understanding the film JFK, is Oliver Stone’s interpretation of the events surrounding the Vietnam War.

This seminar raises the issue of interpretations in time. The view of Kennedy in 1964 (successful cold war warrior killed by a supporter of communism) is very different from the one that existed in 1990 (a man of peace killed as a result of a right-wing political conspiracy). This will no doubt change in the future. For example, I have it on good authority that JFK’s enemies created forged documents just after his death that are now in the archives of the FBI and the CIA. These are not due for release until 2029. By that time there will not be anyone left alive who will be in a position to question the truth of these documents. Will this be the final image of JFK? If it is, it will be less true than the one provided by Oliver Stone.

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* A creative end-product - film-making can inspire pupils - it can get them thinking creatively and it can help them to get ‘inside’ some of the factors that shape historical interpretations.

* The depth study had come full circle, starting with pupils analysing a film interpretation of JFK and ending with them producing their own.  Having shown them the tricks of the film-makers trade, to deny these pupils the opportunity to put their new found knowledge into action would have been much like showing a child a sweet shop and then closing the door.

What a fascinating seminar, I only wish I could have seen it ‘live’ as it were. There is much to admire in the very systematic approach to film illustrated here, but it is these last comments about student filmmaking that interested me most.

I have long been convinced of the need to spend time critically analysing film with history students as we would any other sources. Film, documentary or otherwise, is too often treated uncritically as a stimulus source of content knowledge; often to lighten the load before teachers return to serious ‘academic’ study.

By far the best way to get students to engage critically with film is put them behind a camera, which is why I loved that sweetshop analogy. With the advent of fairly ubiquitous video cameras and DV editing software bundled with the latest versions of Windows, it is now possible replicate the whole filmmaking process from tentative pencil drawn storyboards to complete DV films with complex production qualities. In addition, broadband Internet connection now allows these films to be shared with the widest possible audience.

I have been teaching Nazi propaganda for a number of years now and from the beginning, it was always filmmaking techniques that interested students most. I have always had students plan and storyboard films, but what the new technology has allowed me to do in the last 3-4 years is actually make the films with students.


As a consequence of making films, students become sensitised to the various techniques employed by the filmmaker: camera angle, lighting, focus, music, narrative, editing etc. Consequently, they begin to understand how they are manipulated; they begin to see through the magic.

This year I’ve moved on to look at documentary work. Looking at the various techniques available to begin with students then move on to write and produce their own. I recently experimented with an end-of-year activity with 13-14 year olds making films on the French Revolution.


I am also making more complex documentaries about the Cold War with my IB students. As in your case study I have set very tight restrictions on the timing of the films. I have also required them to include a number of documentary ‘techniques’: graphics, primary sources, archive video, narration, talking head, academics interviewed etc. I divided my (small) class into two groups, one group set out to produce a film that blames the US for the origins of the Cold War, the other blames Russia. As in your case-study, this a lesson in careful editing, selective application of the evidence and cinematic trickery. These films will not be ready until September, but I know from email that students are currently working on these during their summer holiday; further confirmation of your point about filmmaking being a motivational educational technique.

In general, school history, with its emphasis on imparting the skills of the professional historian, (why do we do this?) neglects to equip students with the skills they require as consumers of history. I remember reading some serious educational research not that long ago, that suggested that most people’s historical consciousness is generated by television and cinema and has little to do with the ‘taught’ history of the school curriculum. In brief, the ‘document’ work and close examination of the (dominantly) written sources which characterises history lessons throughout the world, does little to prepare students to be critical users of the medium that is most likely to shape their understanding of the past.

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* A creative end-product - film-making can inspire pupils - it can get them thinking creatively and it can help them to get ‘inside’ some of the factors that shape historical interpretations.

* The depth study had come full circle, starting with pupils analysing a film interpretation of JFK and ending with them producing their own.  Having shown them the tricks of the film-makers trade, to deny these pupils the opportunity to put their new found knowledge into action would have been much like showing a child a sweet shop and then closing the door.

What a fascinating seminar, I only wish I could have seen it ‘live’ as it were. There is much to admire in the very systematic approach to film illustrated here, but it is these last comments about student filmmaking that interested me most.

I have long been convinced of the need to spend time critically analysing film with history students as we would any other sources. Film, documentary or otherwise, is too often treated uncritically as a stimulus source of content knowledge; often to lighten the load before teachers return to serious ‘academic’ study.

It was indeed a great seminar. I found the process very revealing. I consider myself a sophisticated film fan. Therefore I was shocked to discover just unaware I was of the techniques being used by Stone to create a certain emotional response from the viewer. The explanation of the opening scene was highly enlightening. Although the viewer is aware of the role of the script in persuading people to think in certain ways (and therefore guard against it) they are far less able to cope with the way a director carefully arranges images in a film.

One of the strengths of the seminar was that it was led by two subject experts. Whereas Dale was able to place the film in its historical context, Russell Hall, was able to explain the techniques being employed by the director. I suspect that most history teachers would not have been able to do this as effectively as Russell did. It was a great argument for team teaching and cross curricular work.

If we don’t take this approach, can history teachers be expected to have the skills to do this effectively?

Media studies teaching has taking a bashing from politicians over the years. Maybe there is an argument that it should not be taught as a separate subject. Maybe it needs to be integrated into other subject areas.

As that great educator John Dewey said: “We learn what we do.” Therefore I can see the arguments in getting students to make their own “propaganda” films. However, will history teachers need training to do this successfully? If so, how is the best way to deliver it? Maybe these are issues we should consider with our E-HELP Comenius Project.

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There is an interesting review of Fahrenheit 9/11 in this week’s Sunday Times by Cosmo Landesman. It is part of Rupert Murdoch’s campaign to discredit Michael Moore (after all 379 of his newspapers supported the war so he has a lot of explaining to do). However, he does make an important point that is relevant to the issue of using film in the classroom.

“In watching Fahrenheit 9/11, you are subjected to the relentless drive of its narrative. Unlike a newspaper article or book, you can’t stop, go back and consider an assertion or weigh up the evidence. There’s a lot of food for thought in this film – but no time to think.”

This is of course not only true of documentary films. It is true of television stations like Fox News owned by people like Murdoch. A recent report revealed that editorial positions are handed down from on high in a daily briefing note. One briefing read: “Remember when you’re writing about this (the Iraq War), its all good. Don’t write about the number of dead, or about troops being under fire or under attack. Keep it positive. Emphasise all the good we’re doing, like rebuilding schools and bringing democracy.”

This is not only a problem for the United States. As George Monbiot reported recently:

I don't need to discuss the failings of the US news networks. Fox and NBC have often boasted about their loyalty to Bush's government. Owned by rightwing businessmen, they could reasonably be described as components of the military-industrial complex. But the failures of the British media, in particular the BBC, require more explanation. Studies by the Cardiff School of Journalism and the Glasgow University Media Group suggest there is a serious and systematic bias among British broadcasters in favour of the government and its allies.

The Cardiff study, for example, shows that 86% of the broadcast news reports that mentioned weapons of mass destruction during the invasion of Iraq "suggested Iraq had such weapons", while "only 14% raised doubts about their existence or possible use". The claim by British and US forces that Iraq had fired illegal Scud missiles into Kuwait was reported 27 times on British news programmes. It was questioned on just four occasions: once by Sky and three times by Channel 4 News. The BBC even managed to embellish the story: its correspondent Ben Brown suggested that the non-existent Scuds might have been loaded with chemical or biological warheads. Both the BBC (Ben Brown again) and ITN reported that British commanders had "confirmed" the phantom uprising in Basra on March 25. Though there was no evidence to support either position, there were twice as many reports claiming that the Iraqi people favoured the invasion as reports claiming that they opposed it. "Overall, considerably more time was given to the original [untrue] stories than to any subsequent retractions," the researchers found.

The Glasgow study shows that BBC and ITN news reports are biased in favour of Israel and against the Palestinians. Almost three times as much coverage is given to each Israeli death as to each Palestinian death. Killings by Palestinians are routinely described as "atrocities" and "murders", while Palestinians deliberately shot by Israeli soldiers have been reported as "caught in the crossfire". In the period the researchers studied, Israeli spokespeople were given twice as much time to speak as Palestinians. Both BBC and ITN reports have described the West Bank as part of Israel. By failing to explain that the Palestinians are living under military occupation, following the illegal seizure of their land, correspondents routinely reduce the conflict to an inexplicable "cycle of violence". Even this cycle is presented as being driven by the Palestinians: the Israelis are reported as "responding" or "retaliating" to Palestinian attacks; violence by the Palestinians is seldom explained as a response to attacks by Israelis. Both networks regularly claim that the US government is seeking peace in the region (ITN has described it as "even-handed") while omitting to mention that it is supplying some $3bn a year of military aid to Israel.

The BBC emerges very badly from these studies. The Cardiff report shows that it used US and British government sources more often than the other broadcasting networks, and used independent sources, such as the Red Cross, less often than the others. It gave the least coverage to Iraqi casualties, and was the least likely to report Iraqi unhappiness about the invasion. A separate study by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of news networks in five different countries showed that the BBC offered the least airtime of any broadcaster to opponents of the war: just 2% of its coverage. (Even ABC news in the United States gave them 7%). Channel 4 News, by contrast, does well: it seems to be the only British network that has sought to provide a balanced account of these conflicts.


This is of course an argument why it is so important to use film as interpretation in the history classroom (or maybe we should call it citizenship). After all, few of our students will need to understand issues like this as historians. However, they will need to understand it if they are to become fully functioning citizens.

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Let me ask a question of one and all. Is video prefered to still pictures?

I ask this because I am in a constant argument with some of my colleagues about the use of videos. Their thoughts are that only "clips" of films should be used in class because otherwise we loose the students attention. They also feel that using video is not teaching. Personally, I use video in both clips and in whole film depending on the situation. For instance, when teaching Middle east studies and the religions of the region, we watch "Fiddler on the Roof" in an attempt to teach the students about the Jewish religion. I actually got this idea from a local Rabbi who requires anyone who wants to convert to Judaism. The key, in my mind, is to have the students take some notes and to stop the film and discuss key moments in the film immediately.

One of my professors argues that still pictures are more dramatic and give rise to more discussion. I'm not sure that I fully agree with this but I do see his point. What do you think?

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I would not be willing to say I preferred one visual source over another. I think the one you use depends on the situation you find yourself in. When I am producing a web page I think a great deal about the photographs I use. For example, I always like to include a photograph of the person I am writing about. I do this because I always like to know what people look like. I am aware that the choice of photograph can have an influence on the way you interpret the behaviour of the person. Therefore, the picture I select sometimes reflects my own feelings about the person.

I once had an email from the daughter of a man who I had written about. The man was a outstanding screenwriter. However, in 1947 he was sent to prison and blacklisted for refusing to name fellow members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. The daughter liked what I had written about her father but objected to the photograph I had used. She claimed it made him look like a convict and asked if I could use her favourite photograph of him. I did because this photograph that I had never seen before reflected my own views of the man.

I do not always do that. For example, when I created a mini-website on Hitler, I used several photographs and cartoons. I decided against using only unflattering portraits of him. I thought I would distort history if I did that. I therefore used a flattering photograph that he distributed to the German people after he gained power. I thought this would add to viewers ability to understand his popularity in the 1930s.

Mainly I used clips of films in the classroom. However, sometimes I think it is very important to show the whole film. For example, for many years I used Ric Burns’s documentary on the Donner Party. This is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking and has to be shown in its entirety to have its full impact on the viewer. Although made for an adult audience, it kept the attention of the lowest ability student I showed it to. This in itself was a lesson in what is possible to do as a filmmaker.


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This seminar and many other quality additions make me further question the end product student we create here in the United States.

I do not take students that far in critical thinking in an exercise, ( I teach general track at a private school, not honors) But i do not think I could in the United States AP system because of the scope of information required to pass our AP tests with a high score.

Anyway, I love using films for class. I love having a great demonstration of a way to use a particular film.

I use an assingment where students watch a movie that depicts history and then they right a two page paper about it. They must demonstrate that they recognize that filmmakers use their medium to try to persuade their audience. History is not just a setting, and in films there are always biases or arguments being presented.

Here is an example of one of the assignments. What I like about it is that it does not monopolize classroom time.

Model Movie Analysis Assignments


Some movies are shocking because they introduce the viewer to a new understanding of a culture, people, or time he does not know much about.  Not Without My Daughter is such a shocking movie (based on a true story) due to its clear depiction of the Islamic culture and its treatment of women.  Most of the movie takes place in Iran, which seems primitive even though the movie is set in the 1980s.  The movie introduces the viewer to a whole different world that appears backwards compared to American traditions and customs, yet is normal and modern to Iranians.  It is set in a time where the Shah had recently left the country and allowed the people to live again by religious rulings.  This absence of the Shah was one of the most important events to happen to the Islamic people in Iran, and many who had escaped Iran wanted to come back with the new Islamic rule.  Such is the story line of the main character.  He becomes obsessed with the thought of once again living in Iran, which drives him to the point of holding his wife and daughter hostage.

Gilbert focuses heavily on the unfairness of victims trapped in the relentless Islamic belief system.  This true story focuses most of the movie on the unfair treatment o women.  Gilbert’s intent is to show a true depiction of Islamic culture and its domination of men over women as well as its overruling of people’s natural rights.  The “hostage” situation in this movie clearly violates any of the natural rights every person should have—from an American standpoint.  Yet he does not fail to point out the Islamic beliefs of respect and honor women fell in the way they are treated.  He includes some of the facts that let the audience know that women want to be treated the way they are.  They believe that covering every inch of their body when going out is the only respectable thing to do, and when someone attempted to change that, the women rioted against that change.  He gives a good balance from both American and Iranian belief systems, but Gilbert favors the American beliefs (especially regarding the rights of women) and seems to be fighting for those beliefs by the direction of this movie.

The director gets his point across with very effective scenes.  Much of the movie is extremely emotional, and it does not hold back from the harsh reality of the husband’s control over a woman and his family in Iran.  Once the main character gets a taste of this control he has over his wife and wants to begin living in the traditions of Islam, he becomes a monster.  He controls everything about his wife and even takes her daughter away from her.  The persuasiveness of the movie is evident.  The whole Iranian/Islam situation is ridiculous to an outsider, and any person who gets caught in it is almost hopeless in getting out.  The main character was one of the few women strong enough to get out of it, but most of the time, the situation is so restraining that it is useless to even try escaping.

This is not the kind of movie I can say that I “liked”.  It was powerful and well done, but it really stirred something inside of me.  I have heard stories of the restrictions on women in the Islamic culture, but I have never seen anything that gave me a close look at its reality.  The treatment of women is horrifying and makes me wonder why nothing has ever been done to stop it.  Women are not allowed to speak their own mind or even leave the country without permission from their husbands.  They must completely submit to their husbands and have no right to stand up for what they believe in.  This idea is foreign to an American who believes that women are equal to men and learned of the fight of women to gain that equality. It makes me want to go fight for women’s rights in Iran, but from watching this movie, I do not think it would do any good.  The religion and tradition is so important to these people that they refuse to listen to other ideas.  This movie was extremely powerful and helped me learn a whole lot about a culture of which I knew very little.

  The movie Not Without My Daughter is set in Iran.  In Iran, at this time, there is a new leader and a new, dominant religion, Islam.  The new leader had risen out of a revolution in Iran, which led to a new way of life for the people.  There were very strict laws for women, and they were strongly enforced.  In this movie, an American woman, Betty, is married to a Muslim, Moody, from Iran.  When he returns to Iran for the first time in twenty years, he feels guilty about not being there during the revolution.  He decides that the best thing for his family is to stay in Iran and start a new life there, even though his wife wants to go back to America.  Now that Betty is in Iran and married to an Iranian, she has to abide by the Iranian laws, and she is now considered an Iranian citizen.  One strict law is that Betty has to do whatever her husband says.  If a woman does not obey her husband, he can legally kill her.  Betty often disobeys her husband, and he isolates her from everyone, including her daughter (Mahtob), in order to punish her.  He also threatens to kill hr at one point.  Moody is very strict with Betty, at first, because he thinks she will try to leave.  He does not allow her to use the phone or go anywhere alone.  Betty also has to wear a jedorh (sp?), which is a veil that all Iranian women have to wear.  When she first gets to Iran, she is in public and her jedorh is not covering all of her hair (her bangs are showing); the Iranian police come at her with a gun and try to arrest her.  During this time, Iran is a dangerous place because there are bombings and a lot of violence.  There are also very strict “check points” for people who are leaving the country.  During that period after this revolution in Iran, there is a lot of turmoil and the environment is very rough and strict.

The filmmaker shows a perspective on the treatment of woman in Iran and on the differences between Americans and Iranians.  First the filmmaker shows how cruel the women in Iran are treated.  He shows this through the way that Moody treats Betty.  He completely disregards her feelings and desires.  He tells her, “You’re in Iran now, and as long as you’re my wife, you’ll do what I say!”  The filmmaker shows how Betty is tremendously emotionally wounded by the way she is treated. Another woman in the movie is shown severely beaten because she lied to her husband.  The filmmaker also shows how many freedoms there are in America compared to Iran, and how desirable America is.  He shows how Betty becomes depressed about her new life, and how the only thing that keeps her going is the hope of returning to America.  The filmmaker also displays racism in the movie.  Moody is a doctor in America (before he returns to Iran); he overhears some American doctors complaining about Iranians coming to America to practice.  This made him very upset, and he became racist toward American doctors.  The filmmaker showed how there is racism on both sides.

The filmmaker was very effective in his presentation of this true story.  He displayed how the people who had always lived in Iran accepted the laws and obeyed them.  He also showed how Americans like Betty, who are accustomed to freedom, do not understand the laws and cannot comprehend that sort of lifestyle.  The filmmaker was very effective in showing how harshly women are treated in Iran.  The emotions displayed by Betty show the reality of the cruel treatment.  He was also fair in showing the way that some Americans.  Because this is a movie about a true story, it is very accurate about the way women were treated and about the conditions in Iran.

I do show some movies in class. For my US history class I use the movie Amistad and find it a wonderful film that is alive with many overlapping issues of US history.

In my Twentieth Century class I show 13 Days and a documentary called One Day in September

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Just to agree with the authors that film/video extracts provide for learning which has a real impact on pupils' thinking. There is a lot of fuss made about computers, but I would guess that over 90% of the bits of lessons which I taught which worked really well, and had a powerful effect on pupils' thinking about the past involved the moving image. It is now quite easy to build up an 'archive' of short video extracts which problematise aspects of the past and which really disturb pupils' thinking about issues such as slavery, the Holocaust, empire etc.

I am currently trying to build up a collection of reseources which get pupils to think a bit more deeply about democracy, and to understand 'democratic deficits'. I suspect that many pupils leave school not understanding much about democracy and its problems, even if they have studied history to 16 or 18. Building up 'collections' of short video extracts is invaluable in helping to persuade pupils that history is incredibly important and relevant to their lives.

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