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2012 Conference

Reframing history: film, television and the historians

Day conference, Queen’s Film Theatre

Queen’s University Belfast, 22 June 2012


Conference organisers: Professor Des Bell and Dr Fearghal McGarry

We aim to provide an engaging forum to explore the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration between historians, film-makers and broadcasters concerned with the public communication of historical understanding in Ireland as we approach a ‘decade of  anniversaries’. In a divided society like Northern Ireland which has experienced long-term political conflict this ‘memorialization of history’ represents a distinctive challenge for historians, programme-makers and educationalists.

Film-makers regularly employ historians to advise on the accuracy of their work, while historians acknowledge the pedagogic value and communicational power of film and television. Indeed the evidence is that the general public increasingly get their historical information from broadcast and film sources. But is the historical film a populist form which necessarily involves the ‘dumbing down’ of academic history? On the other hand, can the inclusion of historical film – whether factual or fictive – within the television schedule and on cinema screens extend access to historical understanding to a broader range of people than the specialist texts of academic history? In what ways does the approach of film-makers to the narration of history differ from the orthodox writing of historians? This conference proceeds from the assumption that to maximise the potential of film to facilitate historical understanding we need to forge more effective partnerships between historians, media scholars, film-makers and broadcasters. The conference programme addresses the following:

- the public commemoration of history in Ireland and the role of filmed history in post-conflict reconciliation
- notions of authority, objectivity and balance in television history in Ireland
- the engagement of the documentary film with personal testimony, collective memory and communal myth
- the use of archive and found footage in historical documentaries and the differing ways historians and film makers approach this 'data' as both evidential and expressive source


The following abstracts were provided by the speakers at the conference.

Des Bell (QUB) and Fearghal McGarry (QUB), ‘Saving Major Ryan: Frank Ryan, the historian’s verdict and the filmic challenge’
The general public increasingly receives much of its historical information from broadcast and film sources.  Our project proceeds from the assumption that to maximise the effectiveness of documentary film as a mode of knowledge transfer of historical understanding we need to forge more effective partnerships between academic researchers, broadcasters and their audience. Our project involves an interdisciplinary collaboration between a historian and a documentary film-team around the making and exhibition of a feature-length documentary film exploring the life of Frank Ryan (1902-1944): republican activist, International Brigade volunteer and alleged Nazi collaborator. It involves collaboration with an independent film and television company (Glass Machine Productions), an Irish broadcaster (TG4) and a regional film festival (Belfast Film Festival) and photographic gallery (Belfast Exposed) to produce and exhibit a feature-length documentary film based on the published research of Dr McGarry

Our project also seeks to explore a wider set of issues concerned with the relationship between academic history, factual film-making and the public communication of historical understanding, and to elaborate a model of good interdisciplinary practice to guide future collaborations between historians, film-makers, broadcasters and their audience. In what ways does the approach of film-makers differ from more conventional scholarly historical writing? What are the specific responsibilities arising from knowledge transfer of historical research in a divided society? What strategies might be adopted to facilitate greater engagement with the audience for television history, and to ensure that history on televisions reflects scholarly standards rather than a dumbing-down of academic history?

While our film seeks to be attentive to the latest historical research on Ryan and Ireland during the Second World War, it draws upon the imaginative resources of the creative documentary to encourage an interrogation of history in a society where historical narrative is often divisive.

Steven Carson (RTE)
One classic aim of documentary is to show one part of the nation to the other; not to judge or mock, but so that it can be understood with respect. Historical documentary might be seen as an attempt to treat the past in the same way. With the ‘decade of anniversaries’ upon us, the road map for Irish historical documentary seems clear. Covenant, Lockout, World War, Rising, Tan War, Partition, Civil War: a simple list of ‘events’ for the TV schedulers to tick off. And yet, the challenges for broadcasters, film-makers and historians in presenting an accurate, accessible picture of the formative years of both Irish polities are not so simple. Focusing on ‘turning points’ and the actions of ‘great men’ make for strong narratives – but how do we convey the experiences of those who didn’t consciously strive to leave their mark in history, or of the continuity between events - and what of the deeper economic and social forces at work Historical documentary in the coming years also faces the regular challenges – how to bring dusty files and documents to life, or how to keep one step ahead of the informed viewer without losing their casual counterpart? And, in an era of ever-tighter budgets, how can we ensure that ‘reconstructions’ don’t consist of half a dozen extras silently pretending to negotiate the Treaty. Those are the challenges we collectively face, but the rewards are high. Irish audiences are well-informed and attracted to serious documentary programming to a much greater extent than in other countries. There will be an eager audience for the right programmes; it’s up to us to make them.

Michael Chanan (University of Roehampton), 'The American Who Electrified Russia': archive film as historical evidence
The film archives are full of neglected newsreels and documentaries, fragmentary traces serving as signs of what is mostly forgotten—moments robbed from history, briefly exhibited, and then, except for a few iconic examples, relegated to the shelves and the catalogues. This field of the semiosis of the historical trace is the terrain of two long form documentaries I’ve made over the past ten years, one about a city (Detroit: Ruin of a City, 2005), and one about a relative of mine who died over fifty years ago (The American Who Electrified Russia, 2009). As a documentarist, I’ve been using archives almost from the start to borrow images usually for illustrative purposes, and until these two films I hadn’t really grappled with the tension between the indexical and iconic dimensions of the archive image, and the nature of archive footage as primary historical evidence.

Angela Graham (Cardiff University)
Green Bay Media's ‘The Story of Wales’ is the first television history of the country in a generation. Development Producer Angela Graham presents the collaboration between the producers, National Partners, 10 universities and more than 50 academic historians (30 of whom appear on screen). The series met and exceeded the expectations of the BBC and delighted the audience. The series ran on BBC 1 Wales in spring this year and will be shown on BBC 2 Network this autumn. It has already been shown in Australia and sold to other major markets. Beyond the TV programmes, a related multimedia package extended the ways in which history can be brought to the public and the public to history. Is there a recipe for designing TV history for the public which also respects the values and aims of academics?

Cahal McLaughlin (University of Ulster)
The Prisons Memory Archive is a collection of filmed interviews with 175 participants who experienced the prisons of Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the Troubles. Each recording follows the participants as they re-engage with the sites that were vacated when the Good Friday Agreement led to prisoner release and the prisons closing.
These prisons were both touchstone and tinderbox during the political violence known as the Troubles and continue to have a hold on public consciousness. By recording memories from this period in this setting, we are seeking ways to represent a violent past in a present where narratives continue to be contested.

To further this aim, several protocols have been formulated and include inclusivity which encourages a wide range of participation from prison staff to prisoner, from chaplain to visitor; co-ownership allows participants to retain authorship of their own stories; a life story approach, which eschews leading questions, contributes to a collaborative approach that shares authority with the participants in agenda setting.

By emphasising memory and experience rather than ‘facts’ and ‘objectivity’, the archive offers a contribution to our history that opens, rather than closes, windows of inquiry and analysis. Nuanced readings are possible because full recordings will be available, with rich layers of remembering, performance and reflection.

Antaine O’Donnaile (BBC)
The period from 1912 to 1922 is arguably the most influential in the recent history of this island. The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Proclamation, the Somme, the War of Independence, Partition and the Irish Civil War are milestones in a decade of enormous change in Ireland which shaped the rest of the 20th century and which still casts a long shadow into the 21st century. It has been argued, for example, that the Ulster Covenant and Easter Proclamation, each almost a mirror image of the other, became the cornerstones of two states in Ireland after 1921. By 1922 so much on this island had changed irrevocably, but not everything!

The centenaries of these dramatic events will be commemorated in many forms during the period 2012-2022, but how? In a very different social and political landscape, how will people in Ireland and beyond remember and mark traumatic communal events that are so steeped in violence and division? The activities planned by diverse organisations; governments, community groups, public bodies and academic institutions will each reflect and interpret history in a unique way. It would be a missed opportunity for the BBC and other broadcasters if all the commemorations of these historic events turned out to be less than the sum of their parts.

The role of the BBC and other public service broadcasters in this decade is crucial. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to provide context and to become a catalyst and enabler, to ask critical questions about social conditions; about violence, peace and justice; about continuity as well as change; and above all, about the individuals upon whose backs the great events of history were carried out. For broadcasters, the main challenge in marking centenaries and being relevant across this decade is one of sustainability. Because of the sheer range of events and the timescale involved, maintaining a consistency for our audiences becomes problematic. Unless there is a considered and planned approach to a narrative spanning the duration of the decade, consistency and complexity could be lost and context obscured.

Some of our audience will not have learned about the period through academic study but through folk history and the mass media. While this creates an additional challenge, the BBC with other broadcasters in the digital age has the extraordinary privilege of being able to explore this decade across a number of different channels and outlets, each with its own identity. Our audiences have the chance not just to see individual history programmes but to use those programmes as milestones in detailed multi-faceted journeys of their own.

Rod Stoneman (NUI Galway), ‘Some Theses on History’
This talk begins to explore the politics of representation of history through the specificities of different media: film, photography, literature. How does the ‘absent cause’ of history appear through the narratives and texts available to us? From the contention around the Irish documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Bartley and Ó Briain, 2003) to the recent French novel HHhH by Laurent Binet, the issues of the depiction of history are both critical and divisive. The objectivity of visual and other forms of evidence, of points of view articulated in the third and first person (Barthes’ distinction between ‘histoire’ and ‘discours’) lead towards a consideration of the responsibility of different forms of signifying practice.