Publication Date

January 1, 1995

In the January 1992 issue of Perspectives, I wrote an article announcing the establishment of the Center for History in the Media and providing the framework under which future work would proceed. The center’s mandate is threefold: to teach historical documentary making, to encourage the use of historical documentary in the classroom. and to develop new historical programming for national audiences. Since 1991, we have accumulated a wealth of experience that illustrates the opportunities and pitfalls of translating history to film—either for viewing audiences or for classroom use.

The centerpiece of the center's work is its five-week summer institute in historical documentary making. During these five weeks, participants explore issues of historiography and historical causation, as well as research methods in print, photographic and archival motion picture collections, film conceptualization, scriptwriting, editing techniques, and the technical aspects of camera operation, lighting, sound, and linear offline editing. The culmination of the intensive summer institute is a short documentary. The 1991 institute produced Mill Girls, a look at adolescent girls’ entrance into millwork based on Tamara Hareven’s study of the Amoskeag. The 1992 institute completed Soulsville: Black Power in Vietnam, which dealt with the radicalization of the black soldier in Vietnam based on Wallace Terry’s oral history collection, Bloods. And the 1994 institute premiered Harnessing Fear: Polio in American Society, which looked at the role of the media in transforming polio from a disease of “others” at the turn of the 20th century to a disease of all Americans by mid-century. Like all of our productions, Harnessing Fear wasbased on the work of historians, in this case, Naomi Rogers’s Dirt and Disease: Polio before FDR and Jane Smith’s Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine. Each year I have team taught the course with another filmmaker; the first two summers I was joined by Paul Wagner, who won an Oscar for his film, The Stone Carvers, and this past summer I was joined by Virginia Durrin, nominated for an Oscar for her film Promises to Keep,the story of homeless activist Mitch Snyder. In addition, we have one or two instructors who teach the elements of production and guide the students through the technical aspects of the project. The course is offered through the Department of History at George Washington University, and students can opt to take the course for graduate or undergraduate credit in history, if needed.

The course is highly interdisciplinary in its approach and its appeal. It attracts participants from fields as diverse as history I broadcasting, anthropology, psychology, museum studies, and education, among others. Further, participants are "students" in the largest sense of the term: they come from varied ages and backgrounds; many have Ph.D.'s and frequently come with years of experience in a wide array of professional fields. Participants are chosen for their fundamental commitment to the idea of communicating history on film as expressed in a personal statement written at the time of application. We market the program nationwide and across many disciplines to attract as diverse a group as possible. Last year, we had 27 participants from 13 states representing a host of professions and academic disciplines: there was an elementary 'school teacher, a pilot, a commercial production assistant, a psychologist, just-graduated history and broadcasting major, a recent Ph.D. in English, and an Egyptian filmmaker.

The one written requirement of the course is a daily journal in which students explore their understanding of the intellectual issues of the documentary- making process and their experience in relating these academic issues to production. Every year, it seems, nearly all of the participants report being overwhelmed by the strengths of others in the class and their own inadequacy in light of the experience and achievement of their fellow students. This observation is merely the beginning of a very intensive, highly collaborative, sometimes fractious, and always lively group project.

The diversity and quality of the students are the very strength and the challenge of teaching this discipline. Some students may know something about production, some may know some-" thing about history, some may have a writing talent, and some may be artistic. -But most have never entered the National Archives or the Library of Congress. To heighten the challenge during the production phases, we force the participants out of their original disciplines-a student may not elect to serve in a role familiar to him or her. A history Ph.D. candidate must be a camera, lighting, sound, or editing person; a local news editor must act as the chief historian or the head of archival research. It is incumbent upon the instructors to bring all of these individuals from varied talents and backgrounds, who are now stripped of their respective disciplines, to a common meeting ground in which production and healthy collaboration can begin.

Our success in meeting this teaching challenge has been mixed. In general, the older, more experienced students remain exhilarated throughout the process. They learn much about thinking historically, they are more flexible in knowing when to end a creative dispute, and they are stimulated by opportunities that production offers. Frequently, the younger, more inexperienced students are awash in the range of ideas incumbent in thinking in this interdisciplinary mode and frequently do not have the advanced social skills to endure the pace and intensity of actual production. The willingness to take risks in the production process, both intellectual and interpersonal, is a barometer of the success a student achieves.

There are times when the thrust of a project is going in a misguided direction, and in these cases we have required students to begin production over again. It is frequently difficult to explain why a sound bite or an edit is simply "wrong" and will lead one down a path of no return; but it is a function of the accumulated experience of the instructors that the students simply have to trust. There is frequently resistance to these judgments. But historical documentary is, by and large, a fairly conservative film genre, driven as much by content as by technique. Therefore, while students think of film production as an experimental filmic opportunity, it is a challenge to force them also to think of themselves as historians operating with rigorous discipline.

Moreover, there are times when decisions about music and visualization work at odds with the historical content. For instance, in Soulsville, researchers found a perfect picture illustrating the central theme of their piece: two privates giving an oncoming officer the black power salute instead of the traditional army salute. The only problem is that the photo was taken in Germany, not Vietnam. In another instance, in the discussion of increased rioting among black GIs, in the absence of any photographs of such incidents, the students used a picture of a lively soccer game that had all the looks of a mob scuffle. Long discussions ensued at the time, and in courses since, about the legitimacy of using these visuals. These are intelligent discussions devoted to the relationship of “pictures” versus “content.” We are able, in these instances, to illustrate the fundamental issue in historical documentary: is it history or is it a story? If it is merely a story then such details of visualization become less important Inasmuch as we portray film as a product of both the head and the heart, we encourage the latter notion; it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to create film that is historically sound and visually true. So, in an old-fashioned sense, we assume that there really is a visual truth.

In our efforts to balance the concepts of historiography and historical objectivity with an emotional resonance, students are rightly posed with more difficult choices. The basis of film, known as the "suspension of disbelief," can frequently work at odds with historical content. The story or the storyteller—not the idea—can become the central point of a film in ways that frequently trap students. In the polio project, students interviewed people with polio and several posterchildren. Out of these interviews, students tended to veer toward the use of emotion for its own sake, not understanding that such emotion must carry content with it, or one loses both the story line and the intellectual thrust. These polio survivors' stories were admittedly compelling. But the intellectual and historical context of these stories came to play a secondary role to the accounts. Relating stories to history, therefore, is a significant challenge with which students of this discipline necessarily wrestle.

Time comes to playa critical element in the effectiveness of the academic discussions. Currently, there are three weeks to complete production. While time is abundant at the beginning of production and the tendency prevails to question every edit, discuss the wording of every piece of narration, and dispute every crescendo of music, these concerns fall to the wayside as the pace of production quickens. As the deadline for the "premiere" approaches, surmounting the technical challenges of "getting the project done” becomes paramount over content. This is unfortunately all too reflective of real-life situation and one the instructors work to minimize in the academic world.

We are responding to these challenges in a variety of ways: in the short run, we are now devoting more time at the beginning of the course to instruction in the technical aspects of production so as to give participants more opportunity to feel confident in the use of the camera, in the lighting and audio recording of interviews, and in the technical parts of editing. This upcoming summer's institute is entitled "The Wilderness in the American Mind, 1825-1950." And we will make the institute ever more competitive by accepting fewer students; the experience, therefore, of all participants will be heightened and the opportunity for discussion widened.

Further, we are currently in the planning phases of expanding the institute into a six-month program leading to a certificate in historical documentary production. Beginning in spring semester 1996, we hope to offer a series of courses in historiography, principles and methods of historical filmmaking, writing for documentary film, ethnohistory, music, technical elements of production, voice and diction, photography, and the history of documentary film. The capstone to the program will be a five-week summer session devoted exclusively to production. Coming out of this program, we will be expanding the opportunities we currently offer for internships with a variety of filmmakers and broadcast entities around the country. By bringing the theoretical instruction and the technical training out of the five-week production process, by giving the students more time to become familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses, and by giving the ideas inherent in historical filmmaking time to simmer over a semester, we believe that we can overcome some of the challenges posed by teaching in this interdisciplinary field.

But teaching historical documentary is not the exclusive purview of the center. We have also engaged in ventures to bring historical documentary into the classroom. The most peculiar experience we have had in this area was the distinct lack of interest in the WETA/GWU Teacher Education Project. This program allocated continuing education credits for recertification to teachers throughout the mid-Atlantic states for participation in a weeklong course on the use of historical documentary in teaching history, social studies, civics, and geography. In defiance of all marketing forecasts, we had virtually no interest from teachers in learning the fundamentals of visual literacy and the development of classroom curriculums using historical documentary materials. It has since been recommended to us that we focus our efforts on teacher preparation programs in teaching colleges and universities where the integration of new methodologies are more readily accepted. This is an alternative currently under consideration. In spite of the wealth of first-rate historical documentaries on PBS and elsewhere, regardless of the amount of supporting educational materials produced to supplement these programs, and given the paucity of knowledge about linking films to curriculums, it is surprising that teachers displayed so little interest in making use of these visual resources. It makes one wonder whether the educational market for documentary films is as strong as has always been assumed.

In spite of these questions, we continue to provide support to filmmakers who create teacher's guides for their films. We have reviewed numerous educational packages and written the teacher's guide for Ross Spear's film To Render a Life: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Documentary Vision. For both high schools and universities, this film is an outstanding and unique resource in helping viewers understand the notion of a documentarian’s objectivity (in print, photography, and film) and the interconnections of history and literature to filmmaking.

Finally, we believe that it is as important to produce films as it is to teach about documentary making. Along these lines we have spent significant time over the past three years developing new programming, including a recent proposal to produce a film for PBS about polio's impact on the American culture of the 20th century based on our work in last year's institute. We have also pursued avenues outside of PBS in the relatively new marketplace for historical programming opportunities on cable offered through the Discovery Channel, Arts and Entertainment Network, and the soon-to-be History Channel. We have also been involved as advisers on a number of productions, including the recently funded NEH film A. Philip Randolph, the Maine HumanitiesCouncil project Anchor of the Soul: The Black Church in Maine, and Got My Mojo Workin': A History of the Mississippi Blues by Vanguard Films. I was the producer for a Paul Wagner Productions contract with the Smithsonian Institution for the four major documentary pieces on permanent exhibit at the new National Postal Museum.

Perhaps most important, however, we have increased our activities in acting as a clearinghouse for producers seeking historical assistance and for historians looking for potential ways of using the visual medium to illustrate their own research. We have also provided assistance to museum curators around the country as they come to use the visual medium increasingly as a method of exhibition design.

On these and any other historical media topics, we welcome the opportunity to hear from historians and students of history. We are in the process of expansion and of providing increased assistance, and we are interested in developing collaborations.

If you would like to contact the center, write , Director, Center for History in the Media, Lisner Hall, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052. (202) 994-6787. Fax (202) 994-6231. E-mail:

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