How digital technology has opened up
There are many more worthy candidates for inclusion in addition to the
above list. The Internet Archive (www.archive.org) is a must for anyone
teaching American history whether they want film or any other kind of
archive source. Back in England again, the National Archives is
gradually working away at its huge film collection. There are some gems
in some of its mainstream resources such as The Art of War (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/theartofwar/films/)
with films ranging from the stirringly patriotic to the somewhat
surreal. The National Archives education site Learning Curve will soon
be publishing Focus On Film, which will contain an archive of film with
‘biographical’ details about each clip, an online editing tool and a
range of activities which combine film used as source material with
other types of original sources. Thus, students will soon be able to
play the role of WW2 censors. They will watch WW2 propaganda films,
assess them against the British government’s own criteria for such
films (provided in its original form) and decide whether or not the film
will be fit to broadcast.
The energy, commitment and finance which is going into such resources is
surely recognition of the value of film in a digital format. In this
digital form it is easily accessible to a wide range of audiences. It is
also in a format which is easy to store, carry around and ultimately
engage with in the process of authoring and re-authoring material.
Richard Jones has already written most eloquently about the processes
and pedagogy of digital video http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=5947
and it is not the aim of this seminar to replicate what he has already
covered but to complement it. Here the emphasis is not so much on the
digital video which pupils create and edit, but in looking at moving
image sources as historical sources, just like text and still images.
Moving image sources may well be interpretations in their own right as
well, of course. In fact it is this area of thinking which is developing
into an interesting new field in historical research, that of film
history. Of course film historians have been around for a long time but
their numbers are now increasing and film history is becoming
increasingly an interdisciplinary field. This has huge potential for the
history teacher, as cultural analysis techniques used by students of
film are adapted by historians to develop new insights into film as
source material. We have traditionally looked at the end product of film
for its meaning and intention. However, film historians can point us to
issues such as budget, exposure qualities of film types, mechanical and
technological issues and even the funding source of the film maker which
expand our understanding of film as a source and allow us to develop
more rounded and sophisticated analyses.
There are many excellent sources of reference for the history teacher
interested in exploring the ways in which the methodologies of the
cultural and the traditional historian can complement each other. Some
Film Education http://www.filmeducation.org/
Resources and study packs based on latest film releases eg Oliver Twist
• Films and British National Identity by Jeffrey Richards (Manchester
• History of Film by David Parkinson (Thames & Hudson)
• British Historical Cinema by Claire Monk and Amy Sargeant eds (Routledge)
• The British At War: Cinema, State and Propaganda 1939-45 by James
Chapman (IB Tauris)
Mastering the Moving Image Part 2 How digital technology has opened up new opportunities to work with
film in the history classroom
So how does all of this fascinating and worthy information help us as
teachers in the history classroom? I would contend that it faces the
history teacher with a heavy burden which will nonetheless be a welcome
The burden is essentially that we need to make our students aware that
film representations of historical events are not necessarily full and
accurate accounts of events as they unfolded. In fact they rarely
justify this description. Despite this, that is precisely what most
young people (and older people) think film accounts are. In an age where
the boundaries between media are becoming increasingly blurred, I
believe that our commitment to educating our students makes it
increasingly important that we attempt to instil a culture of critical
awareness in all forms of media, not just the political cartoon and the
So why might this be a welcome burden? In short, because it involves
almost no shift in our basic practice. We can continue to get students
to think critically about historical sources. The welcome element is
that our sources now include film, arguably the most accessible format
for most students.
At the simplest level this is because in digital format film is now easy
to store and retrieve. A CD ROM with a few choice clips is far more
convenient than winding and rewinding through a VHS tape. In addition,
digital media gives us crystal clear screen shots, or at the very least
the image is clear and still when we hit the pause button. Better still,
with clips digitised and placed on a network, VLE or web site the
students gets his/her own TV player and can watch and re-watch a clip at
his/her own pace. This was impossible before digital technology.
So how to make it happen? There are plenty of interesting techniques to
make students think about the nature of film as a document of the past.
One of my favourites is a technique I call ‘Attentive Observation’.
It is pretty simple – play a clip to a class, almost casually. Then
ask them to work in pairs and recount every last detail, in the correct
order. Ask some of them to act out parts of the scene. Then hold a
feedback session, show the clip again and ask students to assess their
own performance. I usually conclude by asking two questions:
• How would you have performed as a witness in a court case?
• Are you still sure that an eye witness testimony of an event is the
most valuable and reliable type of source there is?
It’s usually an effective way of getting students to stop and think
about the nature of evidence.
Another example used in the seminar was a clip which is available from
the British Pathe web site. The clip is titled Adolf Hitler Assumes
Bismarck’s mantle and its catalogue number is 695.31. In this clip we
can ask the viewer to assess what it tells us about how powerful Hitler
was in 1933. It contains familiar sequences of Nazi marches and Hitler
campaigning. However, there is a fascinating sequence which shows
Hitler’s first cabinet meeting. In our seminar we devoted a good few
minutes to analysing his body language, the attitudes of the other
cabinet members towards Hitler and the general impression he gave (which
was of a man out of his depth). The clip allowed us to identify
sequences which suggested strength and others which suggested weakness
– just as we would ask students to work with a text. The final twist
was to use QuickTime Pro (the upgraded version of QuickTime) to then
select the contrasting sequences and paste them into a new QuickTime
file, effectively using QuickTime Pro on video as we might use a word
processor on a text.
Such examples show us the importance of applying the same methods we use
on text and image sources to moving image sources. Whether we are
looking at the British Pathe collection, the US Prelinger Archive,
German Archive video (http://www.dhm.de/lemo/suche/videos.html) or any
Film interpretations – the bumps in the carpet
In this section of the seminar we used an analogy known as bumps in the
carpet. If you lay a covering on a completely smooth floor then the new
covering will also be smooth. However, if there are bumps in the
original floor then when the covering goes over the bumps show through.
If we apply the analogy to history, which is more appropriate? How often
does an historian work on a topic or theme which has never been visited
before? Consciously or subconsciously, previous versions of a story have
an influence on those who write the next version.
In a medium such as film this process is usually stronger and quicker
than the accumulation of historical ‘bumps’. Study some film
versions of Oliver Twist. In 1948 David Lean’s version of Oliver Twist
created a dark world of mean, twisted Poor Law officials and a workhouse
regime which was compared to Nazi camps. This image was then replicated
in the 1968 and 2005 films. This is in stark contrast to what modern
historians such as Professor Derek Fraser (The Evolution of the British
Welfare State) say about the Poor Law:
Most research suggests that when we look at the overall picture the
authorities usually… gave relief (food, clothes, money) without
forcing people to enter the workhouse.
Indeed in the mid Victorian period something like 5 out of 6 paupers
received relief without going into the workhouse.
Novels such as Oliver Twist … created an image of the workhouse as an
instrument of cruelty and of the Poor Law authorities as being
determined on crushing the poor.
When we look at the big picture there is little evidence to support this
view. Paupers were better housed, better fed, and better cared for than
the poor outside the workhouse. Poor Law officials were usually trying
to raise living standards rather than make them worse. Where scandals
occurred they were usually the result of local officials abusing the
Perhaps it is not the end of the world if a film creates a distorted
popular interpretation of an historical event. But I would argue that it
is a very serious matter if students are not aware that a film can
achieve this effect. It can be countered relatively easily by looking at
the film and studying the ‘real’ history and analysing the motives
of the film maker. But without the guidance of teachers it is hard to
see how students will reach this level of critical analysis themselves.
Finally, there is the question of how serious films might create and or
perpetuate a particular view and whether our students are aware of this.
We have seen the recent phenomenal success of the feature film length
documentary The March of the Penguins. Most young people probably see
this as a cute film about penguins. However, its success in the US has
been at least in part rooted in the fact that a Christian Right element
has decided that the familial strength of the penguins in adversity
demonstrates, through nature, that the nuclear family is natural and
right. How far is the leap from here to deciding that any other kind of
social unit is wrong and then taking measures accordingly? We have seen
Morgan Spurlock’s diatribes against McDonalds in Super Size Me play up
their scientific credentials in order to support the attack on big
business. The motivation is different but is there much difference in
technique between this and the Nazi film I Accuse in which a doctor
murders his genetically ill wife but is cleared in a court for having
done the right thing.
It is not hard to trace this process. Through Blackadder or films such
as All Quiet on the Western Front we have seen the creation of the
interpretation in which British commanders in the Great War were
incompetent buffoons. How does this sit with the hundreds of thousands
filing past Haig’s coffin in 1929 to pay their respects when the
general died? This footage can be seen in the Pathe clip 714.31 Britain
Mourns A Great Soldier.
There are similar contrasts between portrayals of the Women’s Suffrage
movement at different times. Latter day portrayals tend to be made by
admirers of the movement. As a result they play up the bravery of the
campaigners and the obstruction of the government in achieving women’s
suffrage. A look at contemporary film suggests that the major opposition
to women’s suffrage was public hostility but even more prevalent is
the sense that the general public simply did not take them seriously and
saw them as a fringe bunch of cranks. An excellent example of how a
latter day layer has been placed over a film can be seen in the Pathe
film 2261.01 Emancipation of Women . The opening 40 seconds introduce
the subject and present us with the assertion that the women in the
clips shown are more subdued. But are they? Watch the footage without
the commentary and it is hard to see this.
There are many more examples of approaches and insights which can be
developed along these lines of course, and it would be an interesting
exercise to start collecting them on the threads of this seminar.