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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 173-174
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Teaching Radical History
Film and History
Ian Christopher Fletcher
We are pleased to present four essays on film and history, commissioned especially for this thematic issue on contemporary Europe. Film, video, and television exert an enormous influence over the shaping of popular historical understanding. They can also be powerful media for radical approaches to history, whether in high school and college classrooms or in union halls, community centers, museums, and libraries. A compelling documentary or original feature film can still make a profound impression on an audience, no matter how much television or Hollywood films we have consumed. When I show The Language You Cry In (dir. Alvaro Toepke and Angel Serrano, 1998), a documentary about the transatlantic slave trade, cultural connections between people on the coastal islands of the southeastern United States and in Sierra Leone in West Africa, and the importance of memory and identity in the African diaspora, the students in my modern world history survey are deeply moved. They often come up to me afterwards, with a mixture of smiles and tears in their eyes, to say how much it meant to them. We are fortunate in the United States now to have a relative abundance of such progressive documentaries, available from mainstream outlets like PBS as well as from California Newsreel, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, and other alternative sources.
Nevertheless, film and video can prove difficult to use effectively in the classroom and other venues. Documentaries are no more transparent than reading assignments from history texts. They offer a dense visual and aural experience—period photographs and paintings, shots of historic sites and landscapes, the words of the dead, the voices of the living, often accompanied by music—but carelessness on the part of presenters can lead viewers to perceive them merely as "lectures in a [End Page 173] box." Calling attention to significant aspects of a film before its screening and leading a discussion afterwards are essential to fostering an active, critical practice of viewing.
Long feature films pose a challenge in academic settings, beginning with the fact that they cannot always be accommodated within class hours and suffer, particularly in the case of subtitled films, when shown on VCR monitors. In my courses on modern British, Irish, and imperial history, films are gradually taking the place of novels as a creative way for students to imagine the past and to think about its representation. In addition to writing assignments using printed primary sources, such as newspapers, I now include an assignment that involves viewing two films outside of class and writing a paper contextualizing and comparing them. Before embarking on their own, however, students must learn together in class how to historicize and problematize films. For example, I might show Burn! (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969) and, in the course of our discussion afterwards, suggest that the film constitutes not only a dramatized critique of British antislavery and free-trade imperialism, but is also emblematic of a certain sixties sensibility concerned with race, sex, and Vietnam. Similarly, Topsy-Turvy (dir. Mike Leigh, 1999) offers a wonderful view of late Victorian gender relations and cross-cultural encounters through its story about the making of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Yet it reveals as well a nineties interest in postimperial British identities. Last summer's melodramatic blockbuster, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001), can form the basis of a discussion of colonialism, nationalism, and the subaltern politics of caste and communal identities. Moreover, the film's simultaneous release in India, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere around the world invites consideration of the varied political and historical understandings of a postcolonial and transnational film audience. Learning how to "read" films and recognize the ways in which they construct our sense of the past can enhance not only students' appreciation of course content but also their acquisition of skills that will serve them in the future as producers of critical knowledge and participants in social and political movements.
In the following essays, Rachel T. Greenwald, Mona...