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.

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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!