Using Film in Historical Inquiry: As Medium, as Evidence, for Empathy

Though often portrayed as a clichéd example of poor history pedagogy, there is now ample research and numerous models of best practice to support the use of film in an inquiry-based history curriculum. In this article I present best practice models and practical examples of using film as a medium to engage students in inquiry. In doing so, I will attempt to answer the following questions: 

  • What happens when film portrays history, and especially controversial events?
  • What are some effective goals and models for teaching with film?
  • How does film act as a historical text or as historical evidence?
  • How should I select films and structure film-based lessons?

History on Film

History is always shaped by the context in which it was recorded and constrained by the perspectives and evidence it contains. Similarly, any time a film is made to represent historical events, issues or peoples, whether it is a documentary or fictitious, it should be viewed as containing “perspective laden-narratives” (Hess, 2007). This is because films are: 1) made by people with particular views and within a particular context, 2) often based on written accounts that are compressed or adapted using dramatic liberty due to the need to fit the narrative and time constraints of film, and 3) usually driven with profit in mind – and thus need to attract an audience.

Further, because of the need to represent narratives that extend over long periods of time, great distances, or multiple perspectives, films also rely on genre conventions to help the audience follow the narrative and keep track of what is going on. This is why war movies often include stock characters such as the tough sergeant, or rely on cinematic effects such as lighting and music to help the audience identify the hero and villain easily. These conventions can be limited to particular audiences, such as those from the particular language, national, or cultural group for whom the film is intended, and may be interpreted very differently by audience members from outside of this intended audience. Regardless of whether or not a person is a member of an intended audience, however, every individual may interpret or understand aspects of the film differently based on their own knowledge of the events or people being represented, their experience in viewing film, or as a matter of personal preference.

Documentary films can be particularly problematic as they are often viewed as being objective accounts of the past because they include interviews with experts, film of actual events, and are most akin to written history. However, these films are still the result of thousands of decisions made by the film’s director and editor and are also reflective of particular genre conventions that shape the story being told. Historically, documentary style film has been a medium of propaganda used to influence audiences on political and social issues.

This does not mean that films are not useful as either historical accounts or as historical evidence. As films are shaped by people from particular contexts (e.g., time, place), and with particular views, they serve as a reflection or artifact documenting different time periods and societies. They serve as historical evidence of particular values, interpretations, and material culture. They also serve as a medium for historiography and for raising particular historical questions or controversial issues.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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