The present will be judged by the future

First I feel I should say that yet again my plans for regularly blogging have been derailed by life. I have returned to teaching history at Monash University after 6 years and am loving it, but getting back into the rhythm (and the delightful distraction that is interested students wanting to continue talking outside of class) has been a little more time-consuming than I realised it would be. Add to that we have started renovating our house – and well chaos, lots of dust, one unimpressed Cat later – time seems to slip away quicker than I thought possible. But as part of organising a guest speaker for a unit I’m teaching (Australian history through migration) I came to learn about an extraordinary project that I have been dying to write about for a while.

Behind the Wire – is an amazing project that is literally creating and collecting the oral histories and testimonies of the future – in many forms, including video.

“Behind the Wire is an award-winning oral history project documenting the stories of the men, women and children who have been detained by the Australian government after seeking asylum in Australia. The project was founded in 2014 with the aim of bringing a new perspective on mandatory detention: the reality of the people who have lived it.

As well as this website, the project comprises a book, an exhibition, a podcast, audio stories, videos and a series of portrait photographs.” (About Us)

I recently visited the exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum – “They cannot take the sky: stories from detention” – a confronting, amazing collection of the project’s screened histories. I also had the opportunity to speak with Michael Green one of the people co-ordinating the project (along with André Dao, Sienna Merope, Angelica Neville and Dana Affleck), who has kindly agreed to come and speak with my students about the challenges and processes involved in gathering the testimony of those in mandatory detention.

The project fascinates me on a number of levels, and I am in awe of those involved: from the commitment of those who run the project, the courage of those still within the walls of detention, as well as the resilience and courage of those who have made it through immigration to become residents in Australia.

As chance would have it, just prior to talking with Michael and visiting the exhibition, I happened to be teaching a different group of students in another unit that looks at a variety of case studies based on the theme of remembering the past. The case study we were looking at was Holocaust Rememberance, and in particular they were looking at the Visual History Archive now run out of USC. With around 42,000 filmed interviews with Holocaust survivors it is an extraordinary Screened History archive. The conversations with students were insightful and challenging, considering all the ethical, moral and historical repercussions of capturing audiovisual archives of people’s traumatic experiences on screen.

It was one of those random connections, an accident of timing, that meant right while I was discussing and reading about oral history, traumatic memory and the responsibilities of those who witness, who listen to traumatic testimony, I also began exploring the work of Behind the Wire.

Oral history, testimony, is nothing new. Historians have been working with these sources for decades (and arguably history before academia was an oral tradition). But the fact that some of those who are being given this opportunity to tell their stories through Behind the Wire are people that our own government are trying to silence and restrict access to is a sad, immoral reality that adds an edge to the experience of the viewer – and those involved.

These are stories that, without people willing to risk the wrath of our government might never be recorded. They are histories at risk of never being told or heard. The use of modern technologies, such as WhatsApp to enable these testimonies to be recorded, adds another layer of complexity to the project and its significance for historians (and my students). Screened History becomes, in this instance, an example of a project that would struggle to exist (if not fail to exist completely) if not for a new form of technology allowing the videoing of testimony from behind a wall of silence that has been institutionally established.

Many of the stories are difficult to hear, but to not listen is to turn our faces away from an injustice that is being perpetrated by our Government, in our name. It is a situation where, in doing nothing, we become part of the system, silently endorsing behaviour we should never allow to occur.

Screened History in this case is personal, private, intimate, and traumatic, as well as intensely public and political.

The future will judge this period in history, an important question to ask is: what side will you have been on?

To support the project go to: http://behindthewire.org.au/

 

Biopics, Documentaries, and the Domestic

I’m excited to be again attending the Film and History conference running in Milwaukee this November 1-5.

After the amazing opportunity I had to attend last year, the incredible people I met, and the fabulous research we all got to hear, I put my hand up to be an Area Chair to help encourage others to get their ideas out there.

Behind Closed Doors: Biopics, Documentaries, and the Domestic is the first of a number of Areas that I am involved in – and I am looking forward to reading the proposals of people who are interested in submitting papers for panels on this topic.

To read the full Call for Papers check out: CFP: Behind Closed Doors: Biopics, Documentaries, and the Domestic.

 

Polls, podcasts & the past

I’ve known about podcasts for ages but just had not found the time to become a regular listener to any of them.

However, with my new job I am now catching the bus 6 times a week, perfect podcast listening time!

My husband – an avid podcast listener and political geek – suggested I might be interested in a podcast that isn’t actually history or Screened History related called: FiveThirtyEight Politics.

After listening to a number of back episodes I came across one that caught my Screened History interest: it was a rerun of a discussion between the regular FiveThirtyEight presenters and the team who make The West Wing Weekly podcast.

The episode – Politics Podcast: Good Use Of Polling Or Bad Use Of Polling — In “The West Wing” – interested me for a number of reasons.

Particularly thought provoking was its use of scenes about political polling from The West Wing (a fictional representation of the real world) as a catalyst to analyse not just the historical and contemporary use of polls in American politics, but also the screened representation of them.

The discussion beautifully demonstrated a number of the ways that even contemporary film and television programs can provide rich material for Screened Historians:

  • the way that elements (or the entirety) of a contemporary screen artefact – like a television show – can offer an opportunity to discuss historical events or issues
  • the way that representations of events or issues in fictional television programs need to be understood within the broader context of its process of production (the episode includes an extended discussion of how Sorkin’s personal view of political polling directly shaped the depiction of polling in the show).
  • the need to understand the broader social and historical contexts of Screened History artefacts. The West Wing, as recent as it was, was still as a product of a particular historical moment and this very much shaped its content and narrative.
  • the insights that the responses of fans and the attitudes of producers can offer for research.

The West Wing was very much a program shaped by the times in which it was produced.

Numerous other political television shows – like the current Netflix series Designated Survivor – as well as films like Dave, The American President or Wag the Dog (to name just a few) – also offer similar opportunities to consider screen representations of American political history, and viewers responses to them.

This is not a new topic of research, but it is highly topical.

In the new era of the Trump presidency, when the line between the truth and a lie is being eroded and the past is no more than an ‘alternate fact’, it will be fascinating to look back in 10, 20 years to see what screened artefacts are produced during this period.

Women In Motion

90imageMany years ago now (more than I’d like to contemplate) as part of my Master of Arts degree I undertook a work placement that required me to write a commissioned history for an organisation.

Even though I had not yet fully begun my screened history journey, I did still have an obvious interest in history, film and television (my other work placement was in the library at the Australian Film Institute – AFI).

It was suggested that I approach the professional networking group, Women in Film and Television Victoria, WIFT(Vic). Out of that suggestion I ended up researching and writing a history of their event Women in Motion

wiftgirlI was also interested at the time in web design (the start of an ongoing interest) and instead of producing a written, printed history, I created an online history.

For a number of years that history was very kindly hosted on the AFI’s library website, but it is now part of the larger screened history project.

If you are interested, check it out at its new permanent home (and  new layout thanks to WordPress): Women in Motion 

 

 

 

Film & History conference 2016

Well, I had intended to post more during the conference, but have been so busy attending people’s presentations, meeting new and amazing people passionate about the same things I am, and spending some time exploring Milwaukee that, well – here I am the day after finally sitting down to post! [and here I am 2 days later in Washington DC finally with good enough WiFi and able to finish the post!!!]

I’m doing this sitting in the cafe at the amazing Milwaukee Art Museum with it’s incredible view of Lake Michigan (and its astounding architecture), after which I’m going to see their exhibit Haunted Screnes: German Cinema of the 1920s a complete happy accident of timing!

Like all conferences this one was a bit of a blur, with a whirlwind of papers that will take a while to settle into my mind. But what struck me most (at this point in processing it all) was the enthusiasm, diversity and talent on display. Many presenters were mid-candidature PhD students, presenting work they were no-doubt more than a little nervous about, but which demonstrated an exceptionally high quality of scholarship (which is aLos excellent news for future generations of screened history).

I will admit to having been more than a little nervous about my own paper, as I was talking about my argument that, if History and film is to reach its full potential, and be able to fully engage with its diverse past, it needs to be reconceptualised as Screened History. I was making this argument at the film and History conference – held by the Film and History Journal! Even with the theme of Gods and Heretics: figures of power and subversion in film and television I felt no little sense of heresy and hubris in my argument! But my paper was met with warmth and enthusiasm and I’m really pleased to say I made a number of new connections that I hope will result in some exciting new projects. (So no dad, I wasn’t run out of town!)

 

Film & history conference 2016

I’m delighted to announce that I will be attending and presenting at this year’s Film & history conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin!

While not my first visit to America, it will be my first to Milwaukee, and the first time I’ve been able to attend a Film and history conference.

coverlarger

When I saw the theme for this year’s conference in the call for papers – Gods & Heretics: Figures of Power and Subversion in Film & Television – I immediately thought of the individuals, organisations and publications I had read when researching Reframing the Past.

My paper is explores who the gods (and goddesses) and heretics of Screened History were and are, and the various acts of heresy and hubris (including my own) that have so characterised the field over the years:

Gods, heretics & hubris: reframing the past of history, film and television

In 2004 I began a journey to follow the footsteps of the ‘gods’ of film and history, to find the origins of the field so that I could try and understand where it had begun, and why historians working with film and television were still so often seen as ‘heretics’ by mainstream history. That journey resulted in a PhD – which saw me labeled a heretic by one examiner – and with the support of a number of the ‘gods’ of the field, it also resulted in the book Reframing the past: history, film and television. The book traced what historians have written about film and television from 1898 until the early 2000s. In an act of heresy (perhaps hubris) on my part, its central argument is that historical engagement with film and television should be reconceptualised as Screened History: an interdisciplinary, international field of research incorporating and replacing what has been known as ‘History and Film’.

My presentation will explore the challenges of being an outsider ‘looking in’ on a number of close-knit intellectual communities, of writing a ‘history’ from written documentation when some those of who lived it are still with us, and what the possibilities might be for future histories building on my heretical act. No longer ‘just’ a historian, but not ‘yet’ a film scholar, what does it mean to be a screened historian? Is it still the ultimate act of heresy?

So I am currently refining my paper and finalising the trip … might see you there!

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-25/martin-scorsese-exhibition-at-acmi/7441550

I’m looking at you

Earlier in the week, thanks to the invitation of my wonderful friend Tommy, I got to see the Scorsese exhibit at the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image).

While I’ve seen a number of Scorsese films, I can’t say I’m an aficionado of his work – his name on a film won’t make me go out to see it.

img_1535
Editing tools – Scorsese exhibit

What I do love are exhibitions that embody the intersections created between the past, museums and film: and the Scorsese exhibit had that in spades. As historian and Screened Historian I am intrigued by the ways such exhibits are developed and utilise moving images and static objects: letters, photographs, storyboards, costume designs, etc.

miapassport1
My first passport: took me to New York – and many, many other places

Perhaps because I am about to visit New York, the elements of the exhibit that dealt with the city captured my attention in a way they would not normally.

Yet the city of New York is a character in its own right many of Scorsese’s films, central to his life, as his personal photographs demonstrate. So it would be impossible to come away from the exhibit without feeling like it was, in many ways about Scorsese and New York.

So there was a strange intersection of Scorsese’s personal connection and mine going on which coloured my experience. Adding yet another layer, I turned 3 in New York city, in 1979. But enough about me ..

For historians the love-hate relationship with screened history seems to me to be intimately tied to its ability to recreate a sense of the past that is so engaging to the senses that the audience is literally transported back in time.

But such verisimilitude is a dangerous thing, as it is not real. It is illusory and historians have distrusted it, desired it and doubted it for nearly a century. It has been the written word with which the past has been brought back to life by those authorised to ‘speak’ about the past. But not longer.

New York, Scorsese’s New York, is recreated in the films and the artefacts on display. Side by side with personal photographs are clips from films and production artefacts from films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Gangs of New York. What these revealed was, despite the extraordinary degree of verisimilitude that films like these create, just how much the New York on screen is not real.

Whether recreated on sound stages from elaborate, meticulously researched set designs, or the rare use of intricately painted glass plates, providing historical backdrops for live action foreground: all is an illusion, a slight of hand.

scorsese2

Yet, there is a magnificent, contradictory, tension at the heart of these illusions. In deliberately faking the past – be it 19th century New York or the New York of the 1950s and 1960s – it is done out of a complete and utter dedication to a very real past.

It is more than homage or mere backdrop. In Scorsese’s films it is memory, memorial, almost incantation. To quote Matuszewski, his film’s make “the dead and gone get up and walk”.

img_1537
Even motion is an illusion

Even with all the tools of illusion on display, the sense of their history creates another layer of the past, which again places upon the viewer a sense of reality, of past and present existing simultaneously.

It is what makes for an excellent exhibition, and a perhaps a nervous historian. Or a nervous traditional historian. For only if we cling to old notions of how to represent the past, of who has the authority to ‘tell it’ and how to do so, can such an immersive and sensory experience be considered unsuccessful, or inappropriate history. Both the exhibit and the films it celebrate demonstrate the ways in which the past, when it is engages all the senses, really does bring the viewer back in time, and make the dead and gone, get up and walk.

Conferences, online learning & the past

Okay, so this post isn’t completely about screened history, but it is connected to thoughts I have had about the places history may be ‘done’ and ‘found’ in the future – online.

Am at a 2 day conference on Online and eLearning and it has, like many conference experiences, resulted in a mixed bag of inspiration and frustration. Inspiration about what is possible, and frustration about the limits of time and workloads.

It is mind-boggling to consider how far university learning has come in such as short time. I can remember hand writing assignments, then handing in printed out hard copies of essays, yet now I teach students in Far North Queensland from the comfort of my own couch. Submission, marking and return are all online.

It makes me wonder, what will this mean for history, a discipline so embedded in the objects of the past?

Of course in the future the online world will be part of ‘the past’. This is the reality that originally sparked my interest in screened history. 

From my earliest studies in history – at primary and in high school – the ‘past’ was something explored through physical objects, things ‘left behind’ (mostly by accident, sometimes good management) and especially the written word. As I moved into university level studies I began following my fascination with the silences and gaps in the past – ‘reading between the lines’ as it is called. Trying to find in amongst the millions of pages of written information the voices of those not normally allowed to speak. 

I never was very good at dates, famous names and politics. I always found my interest falling on the forgotten, the silenced and the rebellious. 

This is why, when students ask me ‘why history’ my answer has remained much the same over the decades: it awes me how often we can discover ourselves learning about, listening to the voices of people who never, ever imagined their lives would be of importance 50, 100, 200 years later. The ordinary people who never considered themselves extraordinary. 

Yet most of the time we find these people, we meet them and learn about their lives, through the written word, which is why I continue to wonder, what will happen in the future? 

How will someone like me in 200 years time learn about our present? 

The very act of writing this, on a little iPad in the lobby of a hotel waiting to go to the first session of a conference, is this an act of which the outcome will vanish?

In the future how will we be able to access these kinds of ‘writing’, the blogs, the tweets, the snapchats and even the emails or SMSs? 

Will the online world vanish? 

Will it take our voices with it?
For me, this was a key spark to looking at film and television. Will these – and forms they take in the future – be where we can go to see how the ephemeral, digital lives of today can be seen or heard?

Within the thousands of fictional worlds that form on film and television, will the fictional use of digital communication be archived for future historians?

Yet, film and television are not robust forms, from the beginning their physical existence has been fragile, even combustible. 

Nonetheless, we can see frames, fragments of the first feature length film – The Story of the Kelly Gang – because film can, with just light, be seen. Yes, not as its originators intended, but there is an advantage in the fact we don’t have to have complete access to projectors and other technology to view celluloid or acetate film stock. Also, many projectors and other film and television technology has been painstakingly kept working by collectors and museums, allowing us rare opportunities to see the moving image as it was meant to be. With much now being digitized and made accessible online.

But digital is a double edged sword. 

It enables film and television to be transferred into bits and bites and while it is not an archival in standard, at least it is more stable than celluloid and acetate. 

Yet, and here’s the real bite – it requires a different kind of technology to view, to access, to store; and will we be able to access it in the future? 

Yes we keep computers in museums of technology – but will they really be workable into the future? With more and more ‘in the cloud’ – what happens if the that cloud blows away? No electricity, no cloud, no access.

Blogs and tweets and SMSs are – by the essential nature – emphemeral.

Film and television are also fragile, like so much in the world.

But will they, and their future replacements, be our window to the past in the future?

You’re a what?

When meeting new people how do you answer the perennial question: what do you do?

I know we all change our answers depending on our audience, but there usually is an essential thread.

More often than not I call myself a teacher, which probably reveals more about my own interests and insecurities than I would like. Interestingly, when people show more interest and ask where, and I tell them I work at a university, they usually say something along the lines of ‘oh you’re an academic’. Everytime I hear that response, to me it seems to imply teaching, being an educator is not something the public see as being an part of the role of an academic.

Some decades ago now (more than I’d care to admit) I was on a tour of Italy after completing a postgraduate degree in the field of public history.  They did one of those hideous ‘introduce yourself’ activities in the bus. When it came my turn, for the first time ever, I announced myself to be a historian.

This was met mostly with two kinds of facial responses: one was disinterest, the other was confusion. Clearly I did not fit the idea of what a ‘historian’ was in the minds of most of the people on the tour. Also clearly many did not see it as an interesting career – a response that was particularly curious given a large focus of the tour was about Italy’s past.

Somewhat non-plussed myself I didn’t think about it again. Until a few days later when, sitting around having drinks one night after touring through an area of Northern Italy, someone who was keeping a diary of their trip asked me a question. It was something to do with the history of the place, it was all so long ago now I cannot recall the details. What I do recall to this day is how the small group around me grew and others began to ask questions and add things to their journals/trip diaries based on what I shared about the history of the place we had visited. It was a surreal moment. One that repeated itself multiple evenings during the trip. While I already had experience with lecturing and tutoring in history at university level, that was to students who chose to study history. It was the first time I was ever seriously asked about my knowledge because I was a historian in a non-academic context.

I can’t say that has happened much since.

But it has stuck with me as an example of the strange relationship historians have with the public. There seems to be such a stereotype of what one is, and young women (as I was then) do not fit the assumed mold.

Now many decades on, I have a speciality I am passionate about, Screened History.

It is a field for which I now find myself campaigning for – at conferences, in articles and most recently in my book. It is a field referred to by historiographical introductions, and most historians as ‘History and film’. But, for me that title no longer fits – the issue at the heart of Reframing the Past – because our society has technologically moved well beyond just film or even television as a place where history is enacted and communicated. The ever expanding new forms of media and communication in our society make the idea of the field I research in being called ‘History and film’ no longer feasible. Hence, Screened History.

Unsurprisingly, over the last decade when asked ‘what do you do’, I have begun to respond that I am a ‘historian of film and television’ and now more confidently, a ‘screened historian’.

This certainly gets more enthusiastic responses. Yet very quickly it is also revealed that most people think I have an encyclopedic knowledge of films. In the public sphere, again, the idea that I am a Screened Historian – someone who has spent over a decade researching and writing about how historians have interacted with, talked about and even produced history on screen – still does not fit the more general assumptions of what is history and who are historians.

It is an issue that I often consider when I am pondering my research, career options and future path.

I love shows like QI and watch many, many productions from the History channel and other ‘past’ related television. Yet the era of the ‘celebrity historian’, the well known, public historian (perhaps best embodied by the likes of AJP Taylor in the 1960s and 1970s, through to Simon Schama in the 1990s and 2000s) seems to have lost momentum. Yet we clearly see many celebrity scientists in the current period – like  Professor Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson – have caught the eye of popular culture.

Last week, in a tutorial activity I gave a group of students a list of common university disciplines, including the fields of law, medicine, history, drama, and many others. They were then told that they were in charge of the university, and that due to economic pressures, they had to choose 3 disciplines to close down, to cut from the offerings, and to provide the rationale for their decisions.

The activity always proves popular, with lively debates and often hilarious reasons for closing certain departments. There has been a consistent trend in what to close over the last 6 years I have run this activity – history gets cut (actually usually every discipline I have ever studied gets cut). Yet again this year many groups chose to cut History.

But within a heated group debate about a far more creative response another group made  to cut medicine, law and environmental science, because they felt the university should specialise in the humanities and social sciences as a way of differentiating itself in a crowded market place, one student commented ‘but there is no point in teaching History’.

A sobering response for someone who has dedicated over 20 years to the field.

So what does this all mean for those of us whose passion and careers are in the field of history? Where do we fit within popular culture, and what roles should we be actively developing?

Reconceptualising ‘History and film’ as Screened History is perhaps my personal response. To argue that the field of History needs to know more about how it has engaged with film and television in the past, and has to consider how it will engage with new forms of media into the future. History, a public interest in the past, can be found alive and well in popular culture, on television, in film, online and in print.

Yet I still have students passionately arguing that history is not relevant.

And I still find myself wondering how to answer the perennial question ‘what do you do?’