Film and Media

The Rights and Responsibilities of Historians in Regard to Historical Films and Video

Natalie Zemon Davis and Daniel J. Walkowitz, September 1992

The AHA's Ad Hoc Committee on History and Film drafted the guidelines below to stimulate discussion regarding the professional rights and responsibilities of historians involved in media projects. The Committee has asked that these guidelines be published in Perspectives for feedback from the profession. Further, the Committee proposes that the AHA establish under the aegis of one of the Divisions a standing Film and History Committee that could generate any of the following activities:

  1. Publicize and educate historians and the wider public to take the guidelines seriously, and consider what sanctions could be developed to give teeth to them.
  2. Develop educational booklets. (Pat Aufderheide has suggested one for filmmakers doing historical projects "called 'Getting the Shoes Right Is Not Enough,' or something like that. It would sketch the common filmmakers' fallacies about use of historical consultants, and contrast that with the historian's wider mandate to understand the shape, texture, and assumptions of life in other times and places." A second booklet for historians could concern legal matters, "typical contracts and conditions of consultation in documentary and commercial filmmaking.")
  3. Develop and collaborate with projects on film in the classroom. (Historians such as John O'Connor have already done pathbreaking work on the teaching of historical film, and such projects should be encouraged.)
  4. Encourage the publication of reviews of important historical films in the standard history journals, as has now been begun with the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History.
  5. Establish a prize for distinguished work in historical filmmaking (now under development within the Association).
  6. Stimulate conferences and meetings between historians, filmmakers, videographers, funders, and producers on these guidelines.

Introduction

The interest in making historical films is increasing every day. Producers and directors working in film and television are proposing historical subjects and seeking historical consultants; historians themselves are generating projects. The development is to be applauded, creating opportunities to bring an understanding of the past to large public audiences. It also requires historians and filmmakers to reflect on their collaborative relationship, their mutual rights and responsibilities.

The statement that follows is a first effort to establish guidelines for historians working in visual media. We hope that it will be useful for filmmakers and producers as well. Tested and reformulated over the next years, these guidelines could become a Code of Ethics enforceable by moral suasion, traditional reviewing procedures, and where appropriate, through arbitration by granting agencies or courts of law.

The cinematic situations in which historians may find themselves are diverse. The programs on which they work can vary from small-scale documentaries to larger docudramas and major studio feature films. Targeted audiences can vary from special classrooms to a general public. Funding can come from state and federal humanities councils or other public agencies; it can come from private corporations; or it can be a mixed affair. The role that the historian plays will vary as well: per diem consultant, advisor working on a flat rate over time, research director, scenarist, director, and producer (executive or associate). In some cases, the historian's own prior writing will be the source for the program, but in every case the assumption is that the film or video will draw on the historian's knowledge of the past.

Whatever the kind of film or formal role assumed by the historian, filmmaking always poses issues of historians' responsibilities and rights. Every film or video makes a claim, often unstated, to some kind of truth status, ranging from the absolutely fictitious to the absolutely true. The historian knows, however, that there are conflicts and gray areas of interpretation, and that the verifiability is always stronger for certain historical developments than others.

Furthermore, at every stage of a media project historical conception and communication are at stake: initial decisions on personnel; goals and approach; the scenario and narrative strategy; selection of the cast; location sites; choice of lighting, costuming, sounds, props, and voice-overs; decisions about camera-angles and positions; allocation of the budget; cutting and final edition; advertising; and so forth. The historical dimension of a film or video is not merely authenticating "facts" or costumes or props; it involves the entire way a period is portrayed.

The representation of the past will also be influenced by the location and distribution of control and decision-making. In many films those who control the purse strings (usually the "producer") retain final control over every aspect of the production, and make decisions informed by what they define as commercial priorities. Decisions made during the process of writing and making a film are frequently collective, often improvised, and historical criteria may be only one of several factors shaping the outcome.

Visual media entail special challenges associated with collaboration. Different kinds of concerns are put into play: aesthetic concerns in regard to images, spatial representation, sound, and light; concerns with dramatic structure and language; and concerns with the representation of the past. When professional criteria for historians and filmmakers conflict, careful and informed negotiation will be necessary.

Finally, the filmmaking activities of historians pose new questions about their relationship to their university department and administration. The place of creative historical work in visual media requires a reformulation of the criteria for scholarly evaluation.

Responsibilities

When historians become involved in a film or video project, they must apply to that work the standards of the historical profession. These are outlined in the AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.

  1. The historian remains responsible for the larger picture of life and times portrayed in a film or video. While it is important to be attentive to language, clothing, furniture, and like matters, representation of the past entails more than authenticity in small details and settings. The historian must evaluate the fundamental conception of the program.
  2. The historian should become knowledgeable about the nature of filmmaking as a production process and as an industry insofar as these may affect the interpretation of the past in any particular film or video.
  3. When joining or assembling a project, the historian should be well informed about the place assigned to the historian and the historical material in production plans and priorities.
  4. The historian should become informed about the language of the cinema, the ways it communicates through both sight and sound, and about the full range of cinematic techniques available to enhance understanding of historical materials for different audiences.
  5. The historian should be sensitive to the artistic and dramatic rights of film and video collaborators and seek solutions that respect both historical and artistic-dramatic concerns.
  6. The historian should be aware of the limits of his or her own competence and seek the assistance of other historians or other expert consultants upon encountering historical problems beyond his or her experience.
  7. The historian should insist that any historical materials used (including structures, furnishings, and other artifacts) be protected from possible damage or deterioration. Commercial and artistic priorities must yield to the historian's obligation to work with the community to preserve historic resources.
  8. The historian should find ways to clarify the truth status of each film and make its claims explicit to viewers. This may be done with accompanying written materials, though serious efforts should be made to find cinematic techniques that provide the equivalent of notes and commentary.
  9. The historian should provide to the historical community (and where possible to a larger public) commentary on the historian's role in the film that will be useful in its interpretation.

Rights

When employing historians for work on a film or video project, media personnel should recognize the rights historians bring with them as scholars and as collaborators.

  1. The historian has a right to a written contract detailing his or her role on the film project. This should include matters of salary, credits, and the historian's right to review how his or her work has been used.
  2. The historian has a right to be consulted on all aspects of the film that bear on historical issues in the work for which he or she has contracted, to insist on the continuing relevance of historical criteria throughout production, and to evaluate rough and final cuts of the work.
  3. The historian has a right to receive accurate and appropriate credit for work done. The familiar term "historical consultant" may not apply in cases where the historian has a more fundamental role in the production process, and in such cases a more appropriate term should be used. The historian should be in agreement about the title that will appear in the credits identifying his or her role.
  4. The historian should receive proper remuneration for the time and effort put into the film commensurate with other project personnel.

Rights of Historians Relative to their Academic Institution

Scholarly institutions must recognize the contribution of historians who do work in film and video.

  1. The historian has a right to have work with historical film and video considered an integral and serious part of his or her dossier for promotion, tenure, and salary increase.
  2. The historian has the right to copyright his or her film work. In such a case, unless contractually agreed otherwise, ownership of the film or video will remain with the historian or other media personnel, and universities may not control the distribution and sale of the program or participate in its royalties.

Ad Hoc Committee on History and Film

Barbara Abrash, New York University

Patricia Aufderheide, Washington, D.C.

Natalie Zemon Davis, Princeton University

Peggy Liss, Washington, D.C.

Stephen Nissenbaum, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

John E. O'Connor, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Robert Rosenstone, California Institute of Technology

Janet Sternburg, The Rockefeller Foundation

Jack Roth, Case Western Reserve University

Robert Toplin, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Daniel Walkowitz, New York University