Can you believe your eyes? : Using film as evidence in history.
Many people take the moving image for granted. They frequently assume that the images they see are a true and accurate portrayal of the events of “what is happening”. Of course this can be in part explained by the fact that the visual image is far more seductive than the written word. This is because we impose our own meaning on what we see. The idea that “I won′t believe it until I see it” is very significant here.
It is important, therefore, to learn to evaluate film as evidence. This can be achieved by understanding more about the process of filmmaking by investigating how the content and nature of a film can be determined by editing, use of montage, choice of camera angles, target audience and so on. Therefore, we must consider how films are produced in order to ask what they can tell us. We must study what films show us and how they show it.
Like all historical evidence, film must be considered very carefully and used with other forms of evidence to build up a picture of a historical event. Questions have to be asked of it:
- Why and when was this film produced?
- Who is the target audience?
- What is the filmmaker trying to tell the audience?
- How might a given story be selective or simplified?
- If there is music, commentary or dialogue how do they influence the nature of the film?
- It is also important to bear in mind that censorship or even sponsorship can also affect the final form of a feature or documentary film.
- What is the impact of technology on the process of filmmaking, have new methods changed the process?
Film is such an important historical source because it was the first form of mass communication in the 20th century. Films can also be sources for understanding propaganda. They can be sources for providing insight into the values, concerns and issues of their times.
Archive film in context: Film categories
In this introduction we have provided some clips with suggestions of how to use film as evidence for the past.
Film historians use a range of different categories for film. These include dramatic reconstruction, government information films, animation, documentary, news, newsreel, feature films, amateur films and actuality film.
These categories can help us to think about the type of film we are watching and start to consider important issues such as purpose and target audience. Different films address their audiences in different ways.
1) Dramatic reconstruction
In this type of film present day actors take on the role of people in the past and attempt to reconstruct events as they might have happened. However, many people are uncritical of documentary accounts and feature films relating to the past. Students can be encouraged to consider why filmmakers depict the past in a particular way and how original evidence can be used to create such interpretations of past events. This particular example attempts to reconstruct a series of events that we know quite a lot about. The actor′s commentary as Jane Daniell in the film is based on her letters, but is not reproducing her actual words.
A home in Hackney
Clip from “A home in Hackney”. Produced by The National Archives and Hackney Archives, 2000.