Feature film as historical representation: Lessons for and from the classroom

Year: 2012

Author: Donnelly, Debra

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Historical feature films have become major artefacts of popular and youth culture and for a brief interlude they bestow global-scale historical significance on their narratives of, or at least set in, the past extended by media hype, social networking clamour, gaming appropriations and product merchandising. Historical filmic narratives are often a single representation of the past with no obligation to adhere to evidentiary records. Added to this, feature films serve a commercial imperative, and coupled with the limitations of the art form, this often leads to manipulation of the narrative and the inclusion of fictionalized elements. This paper reports on the findings of an Australian research project which confirms anecdotal indicators and international research that these frequently historically inaccurate and distorted resources are being widely and regularly used as teaching resources in many history classrooms.

Ironically, feature films have many attractions for history teachers. As contemporary history sources, historical feature films serve to link the school and life world of the students and endowing them with a currency lacking in most other teaching resources.  Film has the potential to motivate and engage today's visually-orientated students and to connect them both emotionally and intellectually to narrative frameworks which can offer varying perspectives and points of view. Access to the necessary technology has improved in recent years making visual media a convenient, as well as stimulating, inclusion into pedagogical practices. This paper argues that historical feature films provide the history teacher with unique and rich opportunities to explore issues of historical representation and understanding. The aim of this exploration is to progress students beyond the narrative to see historical knowledge as contested, problematic and interpretative, and encourage a constructionist approach in historical inquiry.

Despite this potential, the rapid proliferation of these filmic and other visual resources has caught many history practitioners unprepared with little or no training in the utilization of resource formats other than printed text, and although the scholarly debate has intensified in recent times, the professional literature has little to offer in the way of pedagogical approaches. This paper suggests a number of innovative strategies from the field that interrogate film as an historical source, so enhancing students' historical literacy and understanding of historical representation.