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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 175-179

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Teaching Radical History

Models of Identity Exploration in Film:
A Letter without Words and How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

Rachel T. Greenwald

At the University of California, Irvine, I deal with very diverse classes. The student body is generally of Asian or Latin American descent, and also increasingly non-Christian. In spite of the diverse population, however, most students have an extremely facile understanding of racism. They tend to reify racial classifications and attributes, even as they attempt to escape them on a daily basis. In my world history survey, I like to test these beliefs with two well-made, historically oriented films that treat the subject of self and other. Just before I begin lecturing on the "Age of Discovery," I show Nelson Pereira dos Santos's How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1973) and Lisa Lewenz's A Letter without Words (1998). A good director will use camera angles, lighting, set design, and choreography—the mise-en-scène—to provide an alternative narrative to plot, thus challenging conventional ways of approaching a historical issue. Although set in very different times and places—colonial Brazil and twentieth-century Germany—both dos Santos's and Lewenz's films treat the mise-en-scène as a challenge rather than an accompaniment to narratives of identity. By studying these films before exploring the history of European colonialism, students can move beyond a reified separation of self and other toward considering the relationship between defining and civilizing the other and defining and destroying the other. [End Page 175]

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a mock documentary that tells the story of a sixteenth-century Frenchman who becomes the captive and future meal of a tribe of Tupinamba living along the coast of Brazil. The Tupinamba mistakenly identify their prisoner as a Portuguese man, their enemy, and therefore prepare him for ritual cannibalism, a process that includes integrating him into their culture over the course of eight months. As the film's main and supporting characters are identified or misidentified, assimilated into or cast out of society, their changing cultural affiliations point to two larger questions: Do the central conflicts in the film reside within or between European and Tupi society, and, to what extent are these conflicts about civilizing or destroying the other? 1 In contrast, A Letter without Words is a real documentary about the fluctuating identities of a Jewish- German family. Lisa Lewenz, the granddaughter of the film's main subject, Ella Lewenz, traces her family's journey of identity from secularized and assimilated Jews during the early twentieth century to a forced loss of German identity during the Nazi period, onto a voluntary forfeiture of Jewish identity in the United States of the 1940s and 1950s, and then, finally, toward a reexamination of this decision during the late 1960s and 1970s. This film examines what it means for the outcast to be deprived of civilization and then reincorporated into society again. In both films, the creation of an inferior other leads to genocide. I do not use these films, however, to recreate the experience of genocide. Rather, I want students to understand the processes that produce it and to examine the lives of those who managed to escape it.

In order to guide students toward an examination of the consequences of defining an out-group, I first go over basic cinematic grammar and vocabulary. Most students have never considered how a film is shot, edited, and scored, since plot usually is to carry the average Hollywood melodrama. Nonetheless, they do need to have the tools to speak and write about film as a primary source, especially if they want to study twentieth-century history. I usually spend two lecture periods on this topic. First, using a very simple classroom exercise that requires a flashlight and a compact disc player, I have them consider how lighting and sound alters the mood of a scene and an actor's interpretation of the...


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pp. 175-179
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Archived 2004
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