Why studying film helped me become a better historian

When I was an undergraduate, I planned to major in film studies, but I eventually switched to a double major in history and politics, keeping film studies as my minor. Although I didn’t keep up with my studies in film theory after I undertook my Honours and PhD in history, I look back on my film studies classes and realise that these classes helped me understand history in a way that was different from what I gained from my history courses. After having my first article on film and history published this year (and after rewatching Sans Soleil and La Jetee online), I thought I’d write a brief post on how studying film helped me become a better historian. Below are the three things that film studies taught me that I have now applied to my historical thinking and research:

1) Narrative history is a story-telling format

Studying how film creates a narrative (usually by following one or a number of protagonists, having a start, middle and end, following story arcs, etc)  illustrates that all (well, most) narratives tell a story that is constructed by the film-maker. Things that are superfluous to the telling of the story are left out, key moments are emphasised, arcs are created to give sense to a series of events to transform them from randomness into an ordered story. This is obvious because a film (usually running between 90 and 180 minutes) only has a certain amount of time to convey an entire story that (normally) makes narrative sense – an isolated temporal/visual experience with a beginning, middle and end.

What I came to realise (particularly after reading Hayden White in Honours) is that historians do the same thing. We select details, edit out the superfluous and construct a sense of order out of random historical events to convey significance to certain things. Historical studies may cover short or vast periods of time, but normally they follow a certain narrative structure.

Brian Fateaux (whom I quote in this article) wrote about constructing a narrative out of historical events for the film Control:

it is impossible to accurately retell and represent each and every moment of Joy Division’s musicology. It is necessary to choose from the available documents, interpreting or reinterpreting them in such a way that forms a persuasive aesthetic and narrative, reflecting the popular understanding of the band.

The same processes are at work when we historians select how to arrange the evidence we have collected and how we bestow significance upon certain historical details. As White wrote in Metahistories:

It is sometimes said that the aim of the historian is to explain the past by ‘finding,’ ‘identifying,’ or ‘uncovering the ‘stories’  that lie buried in chronicles; and that the difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historians ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his. This conception of the historians’ task, however, obscures the extent of which ‘invention’ also plays a part in the historian’s operation.

2) There is a gap between the record/memory of an event and ‘what really happened’

Historians rely on evidence to construct narratives about the past. This historical evidence is predominantly in the form of written records, either archival or published data, but, of course, we often use other forms of evidence in our research, such as oral testimony, photographs, film, audio recordings, paintings/drawings and physical artefacts (to name a few). In our work, we must acknowledge that there is a gap between what the historical evidence ‘says’ and what actually happened. Often this is in the case of the archival record – the ‘smoking gun’ is sometimes not there and we have to acknowledge that without certain archival evidence, we cannot make certain assertions. We must also acknowledge that historical evidence only records a certain point in time and has to be fit into a wider context, put together with other forms of evidence.

The gap between the historical record and the historical event was made really clear by reading Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema books for film studies. In Cinema 2: The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze writes of how the cinematic recording departs from the time which is recorded and existence of a historical moment – as it happened and as it is recorded. Laura Marks, in this 1994 article, explains that Deleuze ‘proffers an image of time as always splitting, like a hair, into two parts’, distinguishing between the ‘presents which pass’ and the ‘pasts which are preserved’. Succinctly, when film is created, a moment in history is recorded, but there is a distinction between the moment itself, which passes in an instant, and the physical image that is produced. Deleuze asserts that we should not confuse the two – ‘The past is not to be confused with the mental existence of recollection images which actualize it in us’. While Deleuze/Marks are talking about the difference between the film image and the event being filmed, the same concept exists for any type of historical evidence. 

3) Memories are problematic for historians

Following on from the last point, the 1982 film Sans Soleil by French auteur Chris Marker (a film I remember watching in third year) highlights this splitting between an event occurring and the photographic representation of the event – between the historical event and the historical record. As Anton Kaes described in his bookFrom Hitler to Heimat, in Sans Soleil, the fictitious narrator, Sandor Krasna poses the question, ‘I wonder how people who don’t film, who don’t photograph, who don’t use tape recorders, remember’. Memories of an event are created through their recording into some format that exists as the historical evidence of this event occurring – if the historical record doesn’t exist, events may be forgotten. But the film, as Kaes points out, also shows how our memory of events can be problematized by the historical record and sometimes there can be a disconnect between the two. As noted by Kaes, Marker demonstrates that our filmic and photographic images compete with our memories; that our memories of events are not captured in film – ‘I remember a January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed in January in Tokyo. They have replaced my memories, they are my memories’. 

The historical record is also complicated by the fact that we often have to (particularly if we work with oral testimony) rely on the competing memories of different individuals involved. As I wrote in this article, historical research ‘should reflect more than just a singular metanarrative, but recognise that history is often a series of competing narratives that overlap and intersect at various points’. This was clearly demonstrated by watching Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the story of a rape in feudal Japan is told by four different individuals and the film highlights the inconsistencies between the four accounts. The ways in which different people interpret the same event has been described since as ‘the Rashomon effect’. In my article on cinematic portrayals of Joy Division, I quote historian Peter Burke who argued, ‘[i]f there is one lesson that… films teach, it is the difference between the ways in which different individuals or groups view the same events’. This is something that all historians learn to acknowledge, but Rashomon made this explicit.

I certainly think that studying film made me understand historical methods much more and I was able to use film to think through some of the historical problems that I encountered as a postgraduate student. If I was putting together a syllabus for a film and history topic, I would definitely include the three films I have referred to in this post – ControlSans Soleil and Rashomon.

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