The Film Festival at the 126th Annual Meeting
Chris Hale, February 2012
During the 126th annual meeting, the AHA screened four films as part of its Film Festival. All four films illustrated the meeting theme, "Communities and Networks," and all four screenings were very well attended—probably the biggest overall attendance since the AHA began the festival six years ago.
The festival began at noon on Friday, January 6, 2012, with a screening of the 2010 documentary A Film Unfinished (directed by Yael Hersonski, and produced by Noemi Schory and Itay Ken-Tor, Oscilloscope Laboratories). A faulty circuit in the Sheraton's Ballroom I ironically almost made A Film Unfinished a screening unfinished, but the Sheraton's AV crew quickly fixed the problem and the show continued. Everyone should see the film as it's an extraordinary documentary about the present-day reactions to Nazi films of the Jewish community in the Warsaw ghetto recorded just before its liquidation. The footage, which was found recently, was screened for a few of the survivors (who were all children during the internment), and the filmmakers recorded their long-suppressed recollections and emotional reactions to it. Amazingly, the makers of A Film Unfinished were also able to include the reactions to the found footage of one of the Nazi camera operators who had filmed it. Indeed A Film Unfinished is a remarkable exploration of the memory and its relationship to the medium of film.
The second film, also shown on January 6, expanded on the meeting theme of "Communities and Networks." My Perestroika (directed and produced by Robin Hessman, Red Square Productions, 2010) is another excellent documentary that examines a few Russian classmates who grew up in the 1970s Soviet Union, came of age during its collapse in the late 1980s, and continue to live their lives amid the dubious political landscape of post-Soviet Russia. It's a remarkable collection of stories that not only shows what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, but also how growing up and coming of age is a universal experience despite the political institutions that seek to shape our identities.
The Film Festival continued on Saturday, January 7, with a noontime screening of the winner of the 2011 John E. O'Connor Film Prize, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History (directed by Chad Freidrichs, produced by Paul Fehler and Brian Woodman, Unicorn Stencil, 2010). The Pruitt-Igoe Myth was my favorite among the screenings, partly because it documented a subject about which I did not know much—the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis, which became a symbol for the failure of public housing. The film examines the history of Pruitt-Igoe, placing it within the larger context of postwar urban flight and decay, and contrasts it with stories and memories of some of the residents who managed to create a community amid Pruitt-Igoe's crime-ridden infamy.
The festival concluded on Saturday evening with a screening of On These Shoulders We Stand (written, directed, and produced by Glenne McElhinney, Impact Stories: California's LGBT History, 2009). On These Shoulders We Stand is an interesting documentary of gay life in Los Angeles from the 1950s to the early 1980s, as it developed into a vibrant political force and close-knit community of its own despite the fervent attempts of the conservative social and political structures of greater Los Angeles to undermine it. Like A Film Unfinished and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, the film is another remarkable document of a community surviving amid extreme opposition to it.
The AHA plans to continue the film festival for the 127th Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Historians who have worked as consultants on recent films and would be willing to lead a discussion at the meeting are invited to propose a screening. Suggestions for films should complement the meeting theme, "Lives, Places, Stories," and can be documentaries or feature films, from inside or outside of the United States. Send suggestions to Debbie Ann Doyle, and include the name of the film; the name(s) of the producer, director, and writer; year of release; the name of the production company; the name and affiliation of the proposed discussant (if any); and contact information for the production company or distributor. Please submit suggestions by March 15, 2012.
In Case You Missed Any of This Year's Films ...
All of the four films screened at the 126th Annual Meeting are highly recommended, especially for classroom use. As of the publication of this issue of Perspectives on History, only A Film Unfinished is currently available on Netflix (both DVD rental and streaming). Here are details on obtaining educational information about the four films, and purchasing DVD copies:
Chris Hale, the AHA's production manager, coordinates the film festival at the annual meeting.