Letters to the Editor
Film and History
Elsa Rassbach, January 1994
In "Telling the Story: The Media, the Public, and American History" (Perspectives, October 1993, page 1) about the conference organized by the New England Foundation for the Humanities last spring, Daniel J. Walkowitz writes, "A rigid demarcation between the crafts of the historian and the filmmaker was most vividly articulated by the screenwriter and producer Elsa Rassbach. ... 'True history' [sic] ... , she argued, demanded what she called 'responsible imagining,' a work ethic that she defended as the property of media rather than history."
They say no drama can be better than its "heavy," so I suppose I should be honored to be thus cast in the perhaps indispensable role of the "media" type who wants to keep historians out of the film business. However, Walkowitz has misconstrued my position. In making historical films like The Killing Floor (a dramatic film on labor and Afro-American history that was shown at the conference), I have always worked closely with historians. I have found this collaboration to be most productive when historians understand and accept the premises of the filmmaking art, for it is only then that they can actively enter into the process as cocreators rather than merely as verifiers and critics.
Perhaps it was the word imagining that threw Walkowitz off. By its nature, film brings an extraordinary concreteness of sensuous and emotional detail to the world, events, and characters it portrays, inevitably going beyond that which can be known through empirical evidence. In calling for an ethic of "responsible imagining," I was not seeking to shut historians out of the creative process but rather attempting to articulate the need for them to enter more deeply into it on its own terms, as imaginative collaborators, reaching together with filmmakers toward a shared ethic of our work together. And when historians enter into this process of helping to create "stories for various publics with multiple voices that speak to the varieties of American experience," they may well find that what often stands in the way of telling such stories is not so much the obduracy of the filmmakers who must "catch up with the historiography of the last thirty years" as it is the world in which filmmakers must work, a world in which great sums of financing must be raised from sources whose interest does not always lie in telling all the stories historians know. To tell these stories, filmmakers need historians not only as collaborators, but also as active public allies.