Innogen Brotherton – review of book – “Film, History and Memory”, 2015.


Jennie M. Carlsten and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Film, History and Memory, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015; xiii + 209 pp.


‘Film, History and Memory’, edited by Jennie Carlsten and Fearghal McGarry was published in 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan. Carlsten is a professor working at Queens University Belfast, the main focus of her work is on Irish and Northern Irish cinema, with a more broad focus on national cinema, cultural memory. McGarry is also a professor of Queens University Belfast, his research specialises in modern Irish history, with an interest in the role of commemoration and historical memory. ‘Film, History and Memory’ studies the way in which film affects history, discussing “the relationship between film and history by considering how the medium of film shapes, reinforces or subverts our understanding of the past” (1) by focussing on memory, or the process in which history is formed. Taking a closer look at the way memories and meaning are attached to previous events, either by individuals, generations or organisations and governments. The limitations and benefits of how film affects historical memory is evaluated, with specific examples of different countries cinema being used. This essay will summarise each chapters aim and main argument finally coming to a conclusion about the success of the arguments and viewpoints presented in the book.


Chapter one ‘A Very Long Engagement: The Use of Cinematic Texts in Historical Research’, written by Gianluca Fantoni, begins with stating the issues historians face when using cinematic texts as their main focus of research. Such as the fact it goes against traditional forms of historical research, and the overall scepticism still present over the use of film as a historical source. Fantoni does begin the chapter with a thought provoking question about the use of film in historical research: “do films influence people, or, rather, do they mirror people’s ideas?” (19). Suggesting this is the fundamental question in the debate of film within historiography. Beginning the chapter with a question is an effective way to engage the reader from the start, and encourage them to think more critically about the argument presented. Fantoni then goes on to present an argument from cameraman Matueszewski in 1898, about the creation of a ‘Cinematographic Museum or Depository’. Then, he moves on to discuss the debate which was held in conference in University College London in 1968, suggesting unedited footage was a better for historical teaching due to the fact it is “the only type of cinematic text (almost) free from manipulation” (21). Additionally, he examines the effects of Ferro’s Cinéma et Histoire encouraged historians such as Aldgate and Richards, to investigate “British society via the analysis of feature films” (23). Fantoni argues that Aldgate’s book in response to this topic exemplifies the approach and discussion into the field of cinematic propaganda. The use of examples in this chapter, to review the topic and the way in which research has influenced the field of inquiry is effective as he not only uses the examples to support his points, Fantoni also uses the examples to evaluate the effectiveness of each argument. The format of this chapter and the way Fantoni presents his points is also successful, due to the fact he presents initial questions to engage the reader, then after presenting his argument, he returns to the questions he opened the chapter with, to allow the reader to consolidate their thoughts and the arguments of the chapter.


Chapter two, ‘Screening European Heritage: Negotiating Europe’s Past via the ‘Heritage Film’’, by Axel Bangert, Paul Cooke and Rob Stone, follows a similar format to that of chapter one, in which the author opens the argument questioning which different forms of engagement have been taken in European history across different film cultures? In which the authors identify the ‘heritage film’ debates in the UK in the 1990s. They go on to discuss how a new genre which was “characterised by slow-moving, episodic narratives organised around props and settings as much as they were around narrative and characters” (33), emerged during the Thatcher years. Additionally, how Monk and Higston provoked debate about British film industry, however, “film studies ha[ve] largely moved on from original debate that Higston initiated” (33–34). Despite this, they argue that the idea and belief of what is meant by ‘heritage’ “remains a key concern” (34). The debate is then focussed on in more detail through the use of specific examples of the Basque country, Denmark and Germany. It is suggested that the cinema in the Basque country followed a similar path to that of British cinema, as it “saw a notable increase in films about history and heritage in the 1980s” (35). When discussing the example of Denmark, it is stated “cinema also plays a prominent part in shaping and maintaining the nation’s sense of history and heritage” (38), similar to that of Britain and the Basque country. However, Germany, it is argued, has decisive differences “in terms of the national-versus-transnational reach of films” (41). Finally the chapter concludes by suggesting that among the EU, “there is no agreement on what exactly the heritage of Europe is” (44), and in fact “a large part of what drives heritage film across Europe is co-production” (45).


Chapter three ‘Confronting Silence and Memory in Contemporary Spain: The Grandchildren’s Perspective’, written by Natalia Sanjuán Bornay, opens with the suggestion that politics played a key role in cinema, and that there is a clear generation difference in memory of the Civil War, called the ‘generation effect’. “Consequently, public manifestations of memory are heterogeneous, fragmented and often contested.” (49) Which Bornay argues created a need to “examine the differences between ‘autobiographical memory’ and ‘transmitted or inherited memory’” (49). Those who live through the war, and those who learnt about the war through sources. Suggesting “the post-war generation did not draw the same conclusion about the conflict as those who actually fought in it.” (50) They then move on to discuss two different films, Something to Remember Me By and Nadar/Swimming, arguing “that both directors’ representations of the past can be seen as interventions aimed at constructing memory of reparation and which purpose effective means of reconciliation in order to heal contemporary Spain’s open wound” (51). Bornay presents and interesting insight into Clara’s plight in Something to Remember Me By, suggesting that her plight “representing how excessive remembrance can reopen old wounds, can be seen as a critical commentary on the contemporary surfeit of repetitive memory which appears neither to disclose new information about the past, nor aim at reconciliation” (53). Another key argument of the chapter was about the secondary characters in Nadar, in which Subirana’s need to discover her families history became “a pressing need, essential for reconstructing her own identity” (59). The chapter overall is successful in arguing how fragile memory is, and the difference in memory across generations.


‘Foundation Films: The Memorialisation of Resistance in Italy, France, Belarus and Yugoslavia’, by Mercedes Camino, is a chapter focussing on memorialising resistance in specific examples, opening by arguing that it might in fact be due to the popularity of films, that their use “as historical sources remains contested” (83). With the main theme being the analysis of films “within the parameters of Memory Studies” (84), this chapter follows a similar theme of analysing different examples against each other. The section about Yugoslavia is especially interesting as Camino argues that Partisan films harnessed “the idea that a nation forges through a supposedly united fight against an external enemy” (89). With the discussion about Tito’s influence and sponsorship in the film industry, especially how Tito’s Partisan Army won support of the Allies.


Chapter six, ‘Amnesty with a Movie Camera’, by Andrew J. Hennlich, opens with the discussion of the importance of film, and how, due to editing, “the relationship between truth and witness [is] not as stable as often presented” (101). And moves on to discuss Kentridge, an artist from South Africa, who’s film “Ubu Tells the Truth addresses the relations of memory, history and narrative” (102). Hennlich presents an interesting argument about how the camera “performs an act of witnessing even when it films absence” (108), and then moves on to argue that in Ubu the camera was not simply a way to document events, but it became “an ironic device, juxtaposing its truth-telling role with the force of violence” (109). However, Hennlich’s conclusion contains some of his most powerful work, and he argues, using the help of Vertov’s words, that “Ubu’s narrative of apartheid writes a history of South Africa’s past while critiquing the TRC… thus narrating memories of apartheid not only for the ghosts of the past, but for the future to come as well” (115).


Chapter seven, ‘History, Fiction and the Politics of Corporeality in Pablo Larrain’s Dictatorship Trilogy’, begins with Nike Jung, the author, defining how he sees a historical film. This is an effective way to open the chapter as it ensures the discussion presented by Jung is perceived correctly by the reader. He sees historical film as committing sacrilege as it is “fictionalising… history into fantasy” (118), causing it to become unreliable. But he does not entirely discredit historical film. Jung does actually argue the potential of fiction with two main arguments; firstly, the idea that film “provides a forum for different ways to imagine and talk about the histories in history”, and secondly, his “textual analysis of films, on the axis of corporeality” (118). As Jung recognises, the main argument and goal of the argument is to address the “questions of historical accuracy and the exploration of (collective) memory” (119), with a specific example of Chilean films to analyse these themes. After addressing the issue that “the recent past all but disappeared from Chilean fiction films” (120), Jung goes on to discuss Larraín’s films, and how in these films, there is a move “from evidential documentation to imaginative negotiation of history” (121). The argument moves on to discuss how the use of old and new footage in NO “makes us ‘aware of the artificiality of the original” (126), and Jung then continues to suggest the use of old and new footage in NO is used to show the continuity between the past and the present. “In this way, film insinuates a different notion of time, as circular, elliptical or flattened.” (126)


Chapter eight, ‘Remember 1688? The Draughtsman’s Contract, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and Public Memory’, by James Ward, opens with a short description of events after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Ward suggests that in UK public memory, “the year 1688 began to be forgotten because it was no longer usable or desirable as a myth of origin” (135). He continues to argue that “the revolutions retreat from popular memory is only partial, and stems from its transformation for a patriotic myth into a multi-layered narrative which yields contested and divisive meanings” (136). Ward continues throughout the chapter to use the example of the film The Draughtsman’s Contract to support and evaluate his arguments, arguing at one point that it is a film that is “a puzzle with a void rather than a solution at its centre” (139). Moving on with the discussion, Ward argues of a geographical difference of remembrance of the Glorious Revolution, and this difference caused further differences in film, due to the fact Northern Ireland participate in positive remembrance, while the UK would rather forget.


Chapter nine, ‘Not Thinking Clearly: History and Emotion in the Recent Irish Cinema’, by Jennie M. Carlsten, is however about Irish film, and about how ‘emotional reading’ influences historical films, again, as with other chapters, using examples to help support her argument. “All of these films use the fracturing devices of flashback, ellipsis and repetition to show the intrusion of violent past events to the present.” (151) Another similarity in this chapter to other chapters of the book, is the use of questions to begin the debate and analysis, and in this chapter one of the leading questions is “do these films, with their unabashed appeal to emotion, tell us anything about the actual historical events” (152). A key argument presented by Carlsten debates how the formation of emotion differs from film and real life, suggesting that in real life ‘art empathy’ does not play a role as it does in historical readings and film. The argument continues to discuss the different factors that change and influence emotion in historical film, using two main headings; duration or ellipsis and frequency. Overall the conclusions drawn by Carlsten in chapter nine are effective in that they are thought provoking, and use the arguments presented in the chapter to form a closing statement. She argues that formal techniques used in Irish film shape the emotional discourse of films. “They obstruct the flow of emotion to prevent, ultimately, synthesis or catharsis, and so avoid a false sense of closure or what Luke Gibbons has called the ‘consoling fictions’ of history.” (166)


Chapter ten, ‘Music and Montage: Punk, Speed and Histories of the Troubles’, written by Liz Greene, begins with the recognition of the importance of speed, and its impact on an audience. Greene argues that, “within the montage sequence, speed has a particular impact for an audience” (169). However, Green recognises the effect of speed does not only change the way the audience view the film, but also how due to changes in speed “time and place become less important… time can be any time, and place can be any place” (169). She argues that this change has a significant effect on history, and again as with numerous of the other chapters in the book, Greene begins her debate with questions, highlighting the questions that will be answered during her discussion. Greene focusses in detail on Northern Irish cinema, and states the importance of the youth in the 1960’s civil rights movement, additionally she identifies two different types of montage sequence; clashes and vistas, in Northern Irish cinema and television. There are two key examples, Shellshock Rock and Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain, used to evaluate the use of vista montage sequences. Another key example used was Good Vibrations, in which history is sped up so dramatically, that three decades are covered in a one-minute montage. Greene does suggest that this increase in speed in film can affect the overall success in presenting history, and she argues that “what is presented within this montage is an impossible amount of information to take in” (177). The overall argument presented by Greene is made more effective by her conclusion bringing the argument to an end, and her closing statement “history is left as a backdrop, and in many ways is dispensable within the overall narrative” (180), highlights how the legitimacy of the history presented in montage films can be undone due to the focus being more on creating a successful and capturing film, rather than on informing the audience of the exact facts.


The final chapter of the book, ‘Reflections on What the Filmmaker Historian Does (to History)’, written by Robert A. Rosenstone, focusses on “the history film, by which [he] means the dramatic motion in the past” (183). From the outset, Rosenstone makes it clear there is a distinction between the history film and the ‘historical film’, and in some cases “sometimes a film can be both” (183), for example Citizen Kane. Throughout this chapter, the main theme is to review and understand the questions of what makes a history film, “what, if anything, does it add to our understanding of the past; and how does it do so?” (183) Rosenstone acknowledges that historians have been extremely dismissive of the history film, but he argues that he wants “to raise the possibility that the promise of the visionaries has been and is being fulfilled, if not necessarily in the way that pleases the traditions by which we academic historians create history” (185). A key argument presented in this chapter argues that “historical film must be judged not against our current knowledge or interpretations but with regard to historical discourse/understanding at the time it was made” (187). Further to this Rosenstone argues “rather than assuming that the world on film should somehow adhere to the standards of written history, why not see if it has created its own standards over the last century” (190). This argument is thought provoking in that it makes the reader question the necessity to change the paradigm of the standards in which film are expected to adhere to. However, Rosenstone does not simply suggest that film should have different standards due to the fact it is clear that the extent of research that goes into film differs than research for professional historians, and in film often research may not be as rigorous, and focusses more on costume and architecture than facts of events. One of the other stand out arguments of this chapter comes when discussing ‘prosthetic memories’, suggesting that “through film we come close to the feeling of having lived in another time and place” (195). Although this may influence the way people see past events, and feel a more intimate connection, which they would unlikely feel from a historical text, Rosenstone still concludes that “at the very least, the history film can be a powerful commentary” (195).


A key success in this book, throughout the chapters, was the use of examples to compare and evaluate points presented by the author. For example in chapter ten, Greene continually uses different examples of films to evaluate the role of clashes and vistas in Irish film. Not only does this provide a more convincing argument, it also allows the reader a point to identify with, making the argument overall more understandable and convincing. Additionally, to this, there is a clear and effective use of headings and subtitles consistently throughout the book, allowing for a more clear discussion which the reader can follow more easily. For example in chapter two, the authors use a subheading for each example being discussed. As well as having a clear format within each chapter with many authors using subtitles, Calrsten and McGarry also successfully put each of the chapters in an order which fit the themes together in a logical way. Although the topics in each chapter are discussing different themes and examples, and focus on different, specific parts of film, history and memory, the chapters were put together in a way that the argument was consistent throughout as many chapters included arguments and themes that linked together, encouraging greater analysis from the reader, and also making the book simpler to follow as themes are continually addressed.


The book overall is successful in that it looks in detail into different examples and geographical areas, discussing the differences in film due to the differences in the country’s history and memories and also political aims. Overall, as well as the use of different geographical examples, another of the most interesting ideas presented in the book is proposed in chapter seven, in which films can use different filmic structures, such as “gloomy lighting, subdued acting, threatening offscreen sound… to provide an ‘invitation to feel’, to experience emotional states that can be aligned to historical experience” (129). Highlighting the influence film can have that a normal history text would not have the ability to do. Therefore, overall the book is extremely successful in presenting a clear and convincing argument about the different effects of influences that film can have on memory and history over other more traditional history texts. The weaknesses are identified and evaluated, and each chapter takes a different approach to the same subject. Due to each chapter focussing on a slightly different topic, it allowed for a far more rounded approach to the subject, which led to a more in depth conclusion being formed. The book is easy to follow, and does not fail to grasp the readers attention with the great use of examples, and opening and closing questions in many chapters, which aid the reader with analysing the information being presented. Therefore, overall, ‘Film, History and Memory’ is extremely successful in its aim of presenting and evaluating themes and ideas into the topic of films influence of history and memory, and Carlsten and McGarry excellently presented eleven different chapters which each contributed to a concise and capturing discussion on the topic of film in history.



Innogen Brotherton



Innogen Brotherton (University of Southampton) boravila je ak. god. 2016/2017. u sklopu studentske razmjene na Filozofskom fakultetu Sveučilišta u Zagrebu.