Tony Barta. 'History, Film and Video for First Year History Students: History 1HF at La Trobe'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 174-78


Tony Barta

We are accustomed to think that the work of historians is writing, yet it is possible that people now get more of their ideas about the past from films and television than they do from books. The aim of this subject is to relate the skills of film-reading-reading and filmmaking to those used by historians and to consider ways in which practices might change. (History 1HF Handbook entry).

My concern here will be with the aims of the subject as a history course, designed as one introduction to the discipline among several others.[1] Although the History Department fully supported the experiment, I was anxious to prove that students asked to expand both their vision of history and their practical skills would certainly not emerge with fewer conventional skills than students taking other first year options. The handbook entry took care to indicate that in many ways 1HF would be a first year History subject like any other. There would be two case studies, in the first half year of Nazi concentration camps and in the second half year of Aboriginal-European relations in Australia. The required reading list featured books such as Commandant of Auschwitz and Richard Broome's Aboriginal Australians. The students might well get the idea - not altogether erroneously - that Monaco's How to Read a Film (an expensive mistake) was there as an adjunct to the history. Certainly the two hour Tuesday session was advertised as being "lecture or film" and there was the promise that written exercises "will be integrated with video projects". But as the workshop guide issued at the first meeting made plain, there would be much time devoted in the first half year to working out whom the Nazi concentration camps were intended for, what their function was, and how the system developed during the twelve years of the Hitler regime. The first semester's major essay turned out to be a considerable work of research, with a suggestion that the 24 volumes of the Nuremberg trial documents might be a good place to look. In the second half year study the emphasis on history and research skills was intensified further. Students had to cope with 200 years of Aboriginal-European relations and a focussed research project to be assessed first of all on academic criteria:

Show, in 1500-2000 words, how the historian's skills - careful reading of the documentary record; detailed reference to it in support of your interpretation; lucid, cogent exposition; meticulous references - enable you to create understanding of the relations between Europeans and Aborigines in the territory now called Victoria. Make clear in your title the aspect of the encounter you are dealing with and show, in a further 500 words, how your video project will make use of your research.

So the idea that the video might substitute for writing, that an audio-visual piece of history could be separated from criteria established by the older medium, was never really allowed to leave the ground. If this was constricting in one way, it was meant to be expanding in another. It was emphasised in the guide that trying to clarify what the discipline of history is, and working out our own ways or integrating film into it would be intellectually demanding and, at least as an undergraduate course, pathbreaking.

As words, "history" and "film" both sound straightforward enough. In fact the many varieties of history - different ways of creating understanding of the past - and the equally numerous varieties of film (further complicated by TV and video) give us a field we cannot possibly cover. There is a huge literature on both history and film, which we will only be able to sample, and a rather small, not always helpful body of writing on the relationship of film and TV to historical understanding. So this study is something of a pioneering enterprise, especially since our central concern is the practice of history rather than media theory or film criticism.

The attempt to expand notions of what history might be began with the first session. Bruce Petty's Leisure was perceived only by a few students as the serious large-scope history it is and the second film was even more problematical. I screened The War Game partly as an introduction to the work of Peter Watkins, who was coming to Melbourne and whom some of the students would be able to work with, but mainly to raise key questions about the nature of history and of historical film. Few noticed

that this film, too, was a history: the fact that it is set in the future, drawing us into the present as it happens, so that we then perceive a past as if it has taken place, proved to be the most effective possible starting point for the first workshop discussions. The diegetic properties of film, history as a construct, historical film as a document of its time (Britain in the 1960s) and doing history as conscious historical engagement: all these fundamental - and daunting - questions were put on the agenda in the first week.

We also began the practice, continued throughout the year, of drawing examples from current TV. Why was The Cowra Breakout being made and screened now? What kind of commentary was it getting in the press? How would people connect with this representation of part of Australia's past? Later we were to have The Dunera Boys also representing Australia in the time of the Second World War, and Threads, again depicting the historical occurrence of the next world war.

Although the advertised historical study was already introduced in the second week, all the first readings emphasised the fascination which the representational and constructive possibilities of film exercised from its beginnings. Selections from Lumiere, Chaplin, Vertov and Balazs alerted students to a time when seeing people walking, laughing and fighting in a moving picture were new. Few students were caught up in this wonder, they were much more intrigued by the prior marvel of photography which we dealt with in the next workshop. Susan Sontag's suggestions about the ways photographs have come to stand for the realities of experience, to represent the past in people's imaginations, had a powerful influence. John Berger's "Ways of Remembering", on relations between images, and between images and text, also made a strong impression - perhaps too strong, given the predeliction for stills which many of the later videos showed.

Video work began in the third week. Clowning, an interview with Hitler in the toilet, vox pop round the campus; then - remembering some basic points about framing, focus, microphone placement - an interview with another student on the subject of the first formal essay, "The purpose and function of Nazi concentration camps in 1933." This experience, in front of the camera as well as behind it, was important for the interviews many students would soon embark on with survivors of Auschwitz and other camps. When the interview film Proud to Live was shown towards the end of first term its impact came not only from the fact that it was made with people living in Melbourne but also from the awareness that a film of similar power could be made with the video resources students were already becoming familiar with. Even a highly polished production such as Schindler was not far out of their range: Dirk Bogarde might not be available for the narration but stills, archive footage and interview subjects would be.

Small-group planning of the video projects, individual research for essays, discussion of films screened, all fed into the continuing concern with how interpretations of the past are created. The set of readings and films which perhaps most influenced students' thinking was the combination of World at War episodes, E.H.Carr on "The Historian and his Facts" and Pudovkin on editing "The Plastic Material" of film. That historical facts do not exist independently of the significance attributed to them, and that significances can be changed (in films, but also in writing) by changing the relationship of elements in an account, was a basic lesson which few students forgot. It was reinforced by everything they read and wrote, by critical viewing of TV and, most strikingly, by the experience of editing their own videos.

The first videos were a mixed bag. In technical competence, in aesthetic ambition and in historical sophistication the range was huge. So was the range of styles and subjects. One twenty minute compilation of still and archive footage was hard to distinguish, except in narration, from its component parts; another, to three minutes of music, might have passed for a video clip. The most successful were probably the most straightforward - interviews, with some documentary and archive inserts. A nine minute video on reverberations of the Holocaust in Australia, for example, was simply an interview with a pre-war migrant from Poland, intercut with press clippings from Melbourne newspapers. Clear commentary, clean editing and technical competence achieved the historical task very effectively. Several others succeeded by the same conventional means and the two or three which attempted quite different things - verite shooting of a neo Nazi demonstration intercut with "revisionist" TV propaganda, or into-camera reflections by the student filmmakers - were by no means failures.

What constituted success or failure was extremely difficult to judge: the only criterion set in advance was "the creation of historical understanding". Before the shooting we asked for an outline of the understanding aimed at and of the strategy for achieving it. After the screening each student had to write a critique of their work in terms of its purpose, form, and function. Some resented all this writing about matters which should be communicated by means of the video itself; most saw it as useful.

As might be expected, the grasp students had on the major problems raised during the first half year varied widely. Some had a very lively awareness that the archive footage so familiar in films about National Socialism - Fest's Hitler, a Career was one we looked at more closely - has its own history. Some did not seem to have learned that these images were generated as Nazi propaganda, recycled as anti-Nazi propaganda, and now function more as references to an audio-visual epic than as representations of the past "as it was". Documentary footage as a window directly into the past died a hard death, especially after the encounter with Jerry Kuehl's argument that only film records from the time, or interviews with people who were there, can make "truth claims" about the past. The better students engaged Kuehl vigorously, others took him pretty much at face value.

This was also the case with the term "popular memory". Some, in our discussion of The Sorrow and the Pity, found it difficult to follow Foucault into the labyrinths of class, historical consciousness and the "retro" mode; we might have done better not to introduce recent French history as a complicating factor. There was now also the concept of ideology to cope with, and the many ways hegemonic ideas are produced, reproduced and reinforced. Although the more intensive discussion of TV as a medium took place in the second half-year, the best openings into questions of popular consciousness were through references to current TV viewing. A session on the previous night's episode of A Country Practice proved to be the turning point for many students in their attitude to theory. My black-board models of the production and reception of ideological messages began to make better sense, so did their reading of McArthur's Television and History.

The last major issue to be raised in the first half year concerned representation of the past in fictional form. Here the lack of time, the lack of film history and film theory, made me most nervous: a joint History-Cinema Studies course began to look very appealing. Our first cinema film, the Austrian feature The Stubborn Mule, was viewed almost without exception as portraying the experience of Austrians under the Nazis. Students appreciated the vividness, the sense of being there, as a simple fact of life - "that's why films are so good for understanding history." Making the magic problematical, something constructed by technical and artistic skills, within a particular set of conventions for psychological engagement, identification, narrative satisfaction - all these things could only be alluded to rather than analysed. The specific historical context of the film's production and reception, its ideological texts and subtexts fared little better. The concern with the film in history, the film as history of its own time, which is central to much of the discourse - Sorlin's for instance - was badly skimped. We had a more satisfactory run at Sophie's Choice, with its big star, its efforts to transcend Hollywood limitations, and its exploitation of them. But all this needed more time.

The second half year study was designed to foreground different problems. The history would be closer to home and in their video projects students would be asked to work out what kind of intervention in Australian historical consciousness they intended to achieve. Another Peter Watkins film, Culloden again was very effective in raising questions for the agenda. It planted the European presence in Australia somewhat disconcertingly in its British origins and at the same time undercut all the categories students had begun to sort out. Was this documentary or fictional dramatisation? What was the "truth claim" of a direct-to-camera interview "filmed" two centuries before TV? How did role-playing emphasise historical rather than dramatic roles? McArthur's suggestion that Culloden pioneered aesthetic strategies which it did not follow through, that foregrounding of concepts such as imperialism and relations of production might be taken a stage further, was a challenge one or two of the better students remembered as they worked on their presentation of Australian history.

The first Australian films screened were political documentaries, appealing for a history that included the black point of view. On Sacred Ground, presented by an Aboriginal graduate, made the point early that Aborigines were the best people to give the Aboriginal version; in The Secret Country John Pilger demonstrated that white Australians had plenty to cope with in straightening out their own record of what took place. The style of these two pieces, or it may have been the daily model of TV reporting, influenced a good many of the subsequent videos: one group of students reported from Shepparton, another from the Murray, yet another from Dimboola. All were careful to have Aboriginal spokespeople for Aboriginal points of view. Jan Roberts, who came to talk about making Munda Nyuringu with Robert Bropho, was also persuasive about this but in fact students needed little persuading. Many had never met an Aboriginal person and now made a point of at least making contact with people whose alternative history of Victoria had never appeared in any history they had read or seen.

Because we again neglected feature films and the conventional representations of commercial TV, not nearly enough attention was paid to the ways Europeans had depicted Aborigines on the screen: the ideological complex of Australia / progress / pursuit of individual advantage was much discussed in the present ("you can have it, you can be it, you can Australian Guarantee it") and identified in the assumptions of the settlers. Racism, too, was dealt with by observation in the present and documentary study of the past. But we did not attempt to pursue it in Australian film history.

Almost all the screening time went to recently made revisionist interventions. Lousy Little Sixpence was the most influential documentary, raided more than once for its archive footage in the subsequent videos. Women of the Sun made the strongest impact as drama. Although discussion of the episodes allowed openings for discussion of acting, production values and narrative strategies, students again found the questions of verisimilitude and authentic representation more absorbing. Comparison with events, descriptions and attitudes discovered in their own research was part of what I'd hoped for; analysis of how the episodes worked in the present was the other part. How to make the past, and the present, strange? Alternatives to conventional dramatisation had been raised in the discussion of Culloden; my attempt to combine Brechtian distancing theory, acting as showing, with Aboriginal approaches to roles in Women of the Sun wasn't much of a success. Even less of a success was the effort to create interest in Two Laws: yes, Aborigines should make their own historical films in their own way but, well, who was going to watch it? Two students later made insistent attempts to hold the attention of their admittedly captive audience through ten minutes of slow moving video (in one case of history book pages, in the other of the La Trobe environment) but most believed an intervention in popular consciousness could only be effective within the normal attention spans and pacing of TV convention.

TV as the medium in which most understandings had to be contextualised was again something which could not be dealt with thoroughly enough. Trevor Barr's introduction helped, and his suggestions about the relatively limited opportunities to change attitudes made students think hard about the effectiveness of their video strategies. It also brought into focus the difference between video and TV: they did not have to submit to broadcasting norms or to being absent from the reception and discussion of their work.

The twenty videos screened at the end of the year all, in one way or another, showed awareness of the problems we had spent so many hours discussing. Some historical interpretations struggled to emerge from technical deficiencies - usually in the sound - and some innovations - notably, the minutes of silent book reading - taxed the goodwill of the audience. Many videos looked very like journalism; none, however, were without inferences to and from the past. Several used the changed landscape to make points about contrasts in value systems between white and black and to dramatise the connections between bourgeois ideology, capitalist exploitation of the continent and the destruction of the people already here: the "here" was important in Victoria, where so few people have any notion of a prior Aboriginal presence. Two videos attempted at least fragments of dramatisation derived from documents, even if only in the form of a quill moving over the page; several evoked the past by quotation from the historical record: paintings, cartoons, letters and legal documents. Other messages about the historical relationship between Aborigines and Europeans were as effectively communicated by images of suburban sprinklers and inner urban pubs, of Arnhem land dancers in a school hall, of an Aboriginal girl reading Keven Gilbert's poems. There was a lot of good history, very different from what had been produced in the essays handed in a few weeks before.

If the fifty students in History and Film had not learned to write essays, and had not achieved some understanding of what the academic enterprise of history is, History 1HF would have been a failure. If their vision of history as an enterprise had not been expanded and made more problematical it would also have been a failure. My hope was that they would question not only the ways films and TV work to create historical understandings but the ways in which every historian works. These reflective qualities were as important as the skills.

Nowhere in this subject, I'd emphasise again, did these students encounter the more sophisticated discourses of film theory. The media studies analysis was rudimentary. Yet very few students finished the year without a sense that many things they had taken on face value simple weren't so. "History", most understood, is not the same as "the past": it is a construct interpreting the past to the present in both overt and covert ways. Neither film of an event in the past, or later film reconstructions, have an ability to give us direct access to the past. Most films are constructed to exploit the illusion of direct access: realist narrative drama and documentary are equally constructs which disguise their modes of representation. They are created, and themselves create understandings, within ideological frameworks reinforced by the most subtle systems of reference and reiteration. These relations, like all historical relations, can be analysed: understanding the dialectics by which historical understandings are produced and circulated, so that on the whole the world is seen to be naturally as it is, is not beyond human comprehension and perhaps the relations structuring the present, once historically understood, are not beyond our power to change.

It's hard to know, reading the final video critiques and reflective essays, how much of this got through. For some students the sheer load of practical video work got in the way of the reflection it was meant to promote. Completing the video came first. Others worked on the videos in ways which already demonstrated a strong sense of film (and even more, TV) being very problematical vehicles of historical understanding. History of any kind became the trickiest of propositions. Hours at the editing suite, as well as the hours of reading, writing and discussion, no doubt had a good deal to do with that. The better reflective essays say as much, in quite perceptive ways. They also say that neither reading history nor writing it will ever be the same, and that watching history on TV is now a very different experience.

Most of the students will not write history after they complete their degrees, or make historical films. But if the way they write history while they are completing their degrees is different because of this first year, and if they teach history differently when they become teachers, as several will, then on those grounds alone the experiment has been worthwhile.


Eds. A companion paper by Robert Newton was presented at the History and Film Conference detailing the problems associated with the production of students' films in History 1HF. Unfortunately we were not able to publish it here.