ARE HISTORICAL FILMS OR DOCUMENTARIES AN ACCURATE REFLECTION OF REALITY?
Published April 29, 2020, 11:55 a.m. by Moderator
R. J. Raack advocates that film is conceivably a fitting medium for depicting historical events compared to the written word. He states that " outmoded written past is very limited and slender in emphasis to condense the ampleness of the multifaceted world, which humans thrive (Rosenstone 1176).” He later states that film can bring alive past events by using images and sounds. The past events can be done with modern editing techniques such as quick cuts to new sequences, dissolves, fades, speed-ups, and slow motion. This makes a film the closest to approximating real life. Additionally, it can capture emotions, invoke ideas, and reveal conscious and unconscious motives. In his opinion, the film provides a better medium in reconstructing the past. Therefore, the focus analyzing two essays by historian Robert Rosenstone is tightly related to his opinion on evaluating film as history.
On the other hand, Ian Jarvie disputes this claim. In his dissenting view, he claims “the poignant image transmits such a ‘deprived info load’ and agonizes from such ‘expansive weakness’, and there is no means of evocative history on film (Rosenstone 1176).” He argues history is not just a compilation of individual stories about what transpired but is a compilation of series of arguments among historians concerning what took place, the reason for happening, and the significance of each event (Rosenstone 1176).
Raack perceived history as a means through which one gains personal knowledge about self. If we relive past events through the eyes of a historical character then it can be cathartic to find shared ideas, beliefs, and fears with others and this makes people feel less alienated. Raack’s view is contrary to the traditional academic approach to history but Rosenstone agrees with him that film is a better vehicle in showing people their past compared to the written word. Rosenstone takes exception to Jarvie’s concept. He says that some scholars have claimed that a single scene’s image has more material than the scribbled account of the same action, but the material has a considerable higher notch of detail and specificity (Rosenstone 1177).”
He further states that Jarvie's claim that history is principally about “arguments between historians" as completely off the mark. He explains that though the debates or works emanating from the debates may not be implicitly acknowledged within a film it does not mean that the said work is overlooked. The debates “assist in setting the research’s agenda in bringing up new concerns, outlining fields, filtering questions, and compelling historians to check one another’s precision and reason ( Rosenstone 1177).
Rosenstone describes the explicit approach as that which “propels motion pictures to be replications of the societal, cultural, and dogmatic apprehensions of the period they were completed in (Rosenstone 11).” He gives the examples of “Rocky” which denotes the plight of blue-collar workers, “Incursion of the Body Snatchers” which is about scheme and conventionality in the ’50s, “Drums along the Mohawk”, a film about the persistence of American ideals, and cold war “Viva Zapata!.” The weakness of this approach is that any movie can be positioned in any period without necessarily providing deeper context and the historical significance of the event in addition to not distinguishing it from other kinds of non-historical films.
The implicit approach sees films as a reflection of written history, subject to the same sorts of rulings about facts, verifiability, dispute, proof, and reasoning (Rosenstone 12). This approach assumes that written history is the single way of accepting the connection of the past and present and that history reflects realism. Rosenstone further explains that history is a construction of reality; history is not the sum of all events but one of a series of events that make up the big picture.
“The Night of the Shooting Stars” by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani employs the following techniques to tell its story. It tells history as a story, an account with a commencement, focal point, and a conclusion. In the end, it leaves the audience with a moral message about the brutality of totalitarianism and a feeling of elation with the defeat of the Nazis. It also employs history as the story of individuals. The film concentrates on a group of individuals to emotionalize, personalize, and dramatize this period in Italian history.
The audience gets to relive history albeit in a fantastical world through the lives of the actors and historical witnesses. The audience gets to experience their victories, failures, suffering, joy, misery, adventure, and heroism. The film presents history as a progression of self-discovery, regeneration, and rebirth. The audience witnesses the social, cultural differences and the commonalities between the members of the cast.
The Taviani brothers disregard historical context and character development in favor of sentimentality. An example is seen when the villagers take flight, they forget to set their dogs free leaving them locked in a basement. This technical oversight doesn’t endear the villagers to a dog-loving audience. The dialogue is sometimes exaggerated and some of the cast are a bit amateurish. In another scene, the villagers stop to help resistance fighters harvest wheat instead of running for dear life and when attacked by fascists, the villagers duck bullets in a well-lit open field which is unrealistic.
Some of the villagers seem to be caught in a dilemma to support the Nazis or wait for the Americans to save them. In one scene, a prankster preys on this dilemma by playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which symbolizes the arrival of American troops. Rosenstone contends that “tentative films may facilitate to revise what is meant by the past. Not attached to realism, they circumvent the burden for authenticity, substantiation, and arguments, which are a customary constituent of transcribed history, and they proceed to investigate new and unique methods of perceiving the past (Rosenstone 12).”
Rosenstone concludes that it is almost impossible to create films that are completely precise and true to the reality of the past (Rosenstone 9). This could be due to financial constraints and when ‘accurate’ films are made they tend to be unexciting because they do not incorporate the full representation and impressive authority of the medium (Rosenstone 10). Historical films should be judged by their standards. People should accept that films are a medium. This is because oral history existed before the advent of writing, and it is crucial to understand that films are just one way of telling and documenting our past. Oral history was never subjected to scientific, documentary accuracy yet it served its purpose. “The Night of the Shooting Stars” uses oral narrative as a way of engaging the audience. The story of a 6-year-old Rosanna is told by an adult.
Rosenstone, Robert A. History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film. California Institute of Technology, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1988.
Rosenstone, Robert A. The Historical Film as Real History. Film-Historia, Vol. V, No.1 (1995).