124th Annual Meeting

Festival of Films at the Annual Meeting

Chris Hale, March 2010

At its 124th annual meeting in San Diego, the AHA held its fourth Film Festival. Organized by Robert A. Rosenstone, professor of history at the California Institute of Technology and one of the preeminent scholars of film history, the latest film festival turned out to be another successful showcase of eclectic, history-related documentary and narrative films.

It was literally “standing-room only” for the Thursday, January 7, world premiere of Lucasfilm’s Manifest Destiny: To Conquer or Redeem. Directed and produced by Sharon Wood, Manifest Destiny looks at the Spanish-American and U.S.-Philippine Wars through the larger prism of American imperial and military expansion that eventually led to an overseas empire (which, of course, is what initially appealed to producer George Lucas, as Wood humorously recalled during the Q & A following the screening). Manifest Destiny is an engrossing first part of a proposed three-part documentary series that will further examine the imperial history of American foreign policy.

Two films were screened on Friday, January 8. First up was the recipient of the AHA’s 2009 John O’ Connor Film Award, Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. Co-produced by Vital Pictures and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), the film examines the pioneering work of Melville J. Herskovits, the Jewish-American anthropologist who studied African cultures and was one of the first academics to successfully assert that African American culture derived directly from African roots. This interesting and unique film studies the initial controversy surrounding Herskovits’s findings and how his groundbreaking work eventually affected the civil rights movement. Vincent Brown, professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, and one of the film’s directors, was also on hand to participate in the Q & A session following the film.

The second film screening, on Friday, January 8, which was cosponsored by the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, was of Annie Goldson’s An Island Calling. The film examines the recent political and social history of Fiji through the story of a prominent white, homosexual couple who were murdered in their home by an indigenous Fijian. The film is an intriguing examination of the conflicts between British post-imperialism and indigenous traditions, and between democratic secularism and Christianized ethnic spiritualism. Director Goldson, who is an associate professor of film, television and media studies at the University of Auckland, discussed her film following the screening, with Vilsoni Hereniko, a playwright and professor of theater and film at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and Tarcicius Kabutaulaka, an associate professor of history and political science also at University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

The festival started off on a rather surreal but entertaining note on Saturday, January 9, with the morning screening of Jesse Lerner’s wonderful documentary, Ruins. Taking stylistic cues from Orson Welles’s F for Fake, Ruins juxtaposes the finding of artifacts from pre-Columbian Mexico with the “art” of creating and selling forgeries of such artifacts. The film also effectively works as a satire of the old-fashioned, stolid anthropological films from the 1940s and 50s, as it splices fictional scenes with “normal” documentary footage a as a way to get the viewer to question the very nature of film as a medium of historical truth, and is one of the most unique and original documentaries that I’ve ever seen. Director Lerner was also present to discuss his film following the screening.

The theme of questioning historical truth as presented in film was continued in the next film as well, Atom Egoyan’s 2003 film drama, Ararat. Examining the Armenian genocide through differing, multiple perspectives, Ararat plays with the notions of “past” and “present,” taking an interesting yet somewhat contrived look at how a historical event can later affect the lives of people who may or may not be consciously connected to it. Laurence Baron, professor of history at San Diego State University, led the discussion of the film after the screening.

Despite the attractive balminess of Saturday evening in San Diego, the film festival successfully concluded its run with a well-attended screening of German director F. W. Murnau’s 1931 silent film classic, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. The narrative film tells the simple yet tragic story of young Pacific islanders who disobey their tribe’s ancient ritual of sacrifice after falling in love. With its use of actual South Pacific islanders as its actors, and stunning black and white photography, the film—despite moments of obvious European paternalism—is still a beautiful, almost cinéma vérité look at a bygone island culture. When introducing Tabu, Robert Rosenstone made a point to thank Keno International Films, who own the rights to Tabu, for supporting this screening, and I too would like to thank them again here.

The film festival will continue for the AHA’s 125th Annual Meeting in Boston. (January 6–9, 2011). Suggestions can be sent to filmfest@historians.org.

Chris Hale, who is into all aspects of filmmaking when he is not the production manager for AHA publications, has been helping with the organization and running of the film festival at the annual meeting.