Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Film History

Archivists, sitting on top of the documentary evidence of the past, are often concerned with trying to discern changing historiographical patterns and trends. Archivists also are seeking new ways to convey the nature of their holdings to researchers and the public in order to have their materials used and to have them better understand the archival mission.

An area of historical work that many archivists have probably not been prone to consider is that of how history has been portrayed in commercial film and in documentaries. At times archivists have been embroiled in debates about the use of historical sources in documentaries, such as in Ken Burns’ Civil War series in the early 1990s, and archivists have tended, like many historians, to be skeptical of the filmmaker’s approach to historical assessment and interpretation.

Robert Rosenstone, a historian who has worked as a consultant on both documentary and major Hollywood films, has given us an interesting new book on the nature of film and its portrayal of history in his History on Film/Film on History (Harlow, U.K.: Pearson Longman, 2006). Rosenstone notes that film portrayals of history are not a “real world,” but he also argues that really neither are textbooks or scholarly monographs. He critiques historians who have been obsessed with pointing out historical errors in film, without understanding what such film versions of the past offer to us. Film is another means for approaching and interpreting the past, and, moreover, Rosenstone reminds us that the “visual media are the chief conveyor of public history in our culture” (p. 12). To this end, Rosenstone thinks that we need to see filmmakers working on historical subjects as a kind of historian, even if they are very different.

Film is, as Rosenstone describes, a powerful means to orienting people to past events. He sees that that they seem to “speak facts directly” and in an “unmediated” fashion (p. 55). But as he contends, history is more than just raw evidence and facts. To understand the past, we have to commit to arrange evidentiary traces in an interpretative fashion, usually through a clear narrative based on engaging stories: “We come to understand the past in the stories we tell about it, stories based on the sort of data we call fact, but stories which include other elements that are not directly in the data but arise from the process of story telling” (p. 155).

In mulling over the traditional tension between history filmmakers and scholarly historians, Rosenstone considers how film is merely a different, and sometimes innovative, way of interpreting and understanding the past. It presents history in a way difficult to describe in words, but in a form that is compelling and often insightful: “Certainly the historical world created by film is potentially much more complex than written text. On the screen, several things occur simultaneously – image, sound, language, even text – elements that suggest and work against each other to create a realm of meaning as different from written history as written was from oral history. So different that it allows us to speculate that the visual media may represent a major shift in consciousness about how we think about our past. If this is true, then it may well be our film maker histories are probing the possibilities for the future of our past” (p. 160).

There are a couple of different levels for archivists to read and use Rosenstone’s book. One might be to reflect on different approaches for reaching the public and potential researchers about the nature and importance of archival work and sources. I am not suggesting we need to find millions of dollars and produce a Hollywood blockbuster. I just think archivists need to be somewhat more open to exploring different approaches to reaching our existing and hoped-for constituency than through finding aids and Web sites. This also suggests that archivists need to be a more open to how they see documentary sources used in history films. For example, Rosenstone describes in his book (pp. 40-43) how the filmmaker in Glory takes liberties with Robert Shaw’s letters, altering them and their historical context, to incorporate them as a dramatic device for moving the film’s story along. It would be easy for archivist to take umbrage with this, decrying that historical documents have been altered. It would be just as easy, however, for archivists to realize that such use conveys a message about the power of such archival sources that they could tap into and use to explain better just what it is that archivists do.