From the Affiliated Societies column of the March 2007 Perspectives
Historians Film Committee at Atlanta
Cynthia J. Miller, March 2007
The Historians Film Committee, with the Center for the Study of Film and History, organized a panel entitled "Film and History Studies: Classic Overviews and Methodologies," at the 121st annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The session was chaired by Nicholas Cull (Univ. of Southern California), and featured remarks by three of the pioneering scholars in the study of film and history: John E. O'Connor (New Jersey Inst. of Technology and Rutgers Univ. at Newark); Robert Rosenstone (California Inst. of Technology); and Robert Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington). Commentary for the session was given by Cynthia J. Miller (Emerson Coll.).
Nick Cull set the stage for the session by introducing the audience to the background of scholarship in film and history, and the key roles of each of the panelists in the trajectory of the field. Cull's introduction provided a compelling framework for the audience, as historians, to understand how the work of these foundational scholars could be beneficial and important to their own work in historical inquiry.
Film & History founder John O'Connor led off the session with a discussion of his groundbreaking work in the scholarship of film and history, focusing on his seminal work, Image as Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and Television (1990). O'Connor reminded the audience that film has become the primary source for historical learning, and explored the meanings, uses, and understandings of moving images as historical artifacts. He continued with an in-depth discussion of the critical need for systematic, scholarly analysis of moving images as historical texts and artifacts, and, using several films as illustration, mapped out his four frameworks as a methodology for the study of film as a rigorous, consistent, scholarly endeavor, emphasizing the need to investigate equally content, production, and reception, as well as the recognition of the crucial differences between film-as-representation and film-as-evidence in historical scholarship.
Robert Rosenstone continued the session, offering an examination of one of the key issues in his recent book, Film on History/History on Film (2006)—the value of the "history film," the film which intentionally seeks to portray history, as a legitimate form of historical discourse. The central contribution of the history film, for Rosenstone, is its ability to serve as a "counter-discourse" and commentary to other scholarly historical work—creating an understanding and interpretation of the past which sometimes confirms, sometimes contests, our existing knowledge of the past. Rosenstone suggested that questions about factuality and 'truth' of history films are not always the most interesting or productive to ask, but rather, that their most significant contribution lies in the ways in which they engage with the discourse on history—what these films add to historical scholarship.
This theme of the role of film in the discourse on history was continued in Robert Toplin's discussion of his work in Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (2002). His remarks centered on the evolving role of the "filmmaker as historian," and the importance of creating and facilitating dialogue among filmmakers and scholars of history, in order to understand the essence and intentionality of a given film project. Toplin argued that history films constitute a genre, much like horror or the Western, and that the framework for considering these films must include the constraints and conventions of that genre—including issues of time, limitations on narrative and character treatment, and questions of artistic license in the communication of historical events. Toplin also urged for greater integration of the roles of filmmaker and historian, so that the values and uses of film in history might be explored in greater depth and dimension.
Cynthia Miller's commentary examined the ways in which the work of all three scholars had contributed to the foundation of the study of film and history. She linked the panelists' discussion of historical "truth" with issues of scholarly rigor through the notion of "film as historical document" versus "film as historical artifact" and the levels of social, cultural, and historical "truth" that can be gained through each. Miller then continued the discussion of the future of film and history scholarship, citing avenues such as making teaching resources and mentors available to elementary and secondary school teachers, and advancing media literacy among students and the public-at-large, so that the responsibility for understanding the complex issues surrounding historical narrative and "truth" does not simply lie with filmmakers and scholars, but is engaged with by film audiences, at all levels.
Another highlight of the meeting was the four-hour time slot during which various affiliated societies present their activities. At this session, the Film & History table was a hot-spot. Miller and O'Connor fielded dozens of inquiries about Film & History, membership, the biennial conference, and submission of articles. The number of history scholars seeking to move their work into documentary filmmaking is growing dramatically, and Film & History is a natural match for their desires to find mentors and a community of like-minded scholars. Many of the individuals who stopped by the Film & History table have already followed up on these initial conversations, with invitations to network at several universities, offers of films for review in the journal, and inquiries about how to begin participating in Film & History's many activities and initiatives.
Members of the AHA are urged to check this and other activities of the Center for the Study of Film and History at www.filmandhistory.org
—Cynthia J. Miller