Visual Media and History Education

Historical thinking includes a complex set of skills and dispositions. One of them consists in helping students cultivate greater empathy and understanding of individuals and societies that were different from ours. This is one of the most difficult goals of historical thinking since it requires that we recognize both how the past is connected to us and, at the same time, alien from us. 

I usually tell my students that we should always grant the subjects of our study the benefit of the doubt. That is, we should depart from the premise that they were rational human beings. By rational I mean they had good reasons to behave in the way they did. Whether what they thought as good reasons is different from what we would consider good reasons is a different matter. Thus, the work of historical thinking is precisely to learn what counted as good reasons for the individuals that we try to understand. 

Film and television are particularly well suited to help students cultivate this particular disposition. Stories told through films are typically centered on individuals that operate in a broader historical context. A good film maker has to elicit an understanding of the subjects presented in the film, this means that the actions of the characters should seem rational in the context in which they are portrayed. When it comes to historical films, the presentation of a story is a form of narrative argument, it is presenting a version of people and events. Everything in the film, from the language used to the clothes worn by the actors, should advance the argument being presented.

The power of film to convince us of the reality of reality of an interpretation often relies in its ability to create an internal logic. This logic, however, may have little or no connection to historical facts. The verisimilitude and relative simplicity of a story presented in film can create the illusion of accuracy. This is why, I believe, using film and other popular culture depictions is very important in the classroom. The visual narratives that we encounter in film, television and, increasingly, video games are key means by which students are exposed to interpretations of the past. It is important that we help them understand what is that they can learn from film, television series or even video games and how to approach them with critical eyes. 

A couple of years ago I taught a class on ethics and history and I used quite a few films or scenes in films to examine how historical events were depicted and the moral judgements that were embedded in such films. For instance, I used a film by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar called Parallel Mothers together with a documentary also produced by Almodovar called The Silence of Others. Both examine a movement led by victims who were either torture during the dictatorship of General Franco, or women whose children were forcibly given up for adoption. In general, both works look at the question of what it is owed to the people who suffered these abuses? And how should their stories be remembered? Both works, are, in themselves an answer to these questions, but said answers are, of course, validated differently in the movie as opposed to the documentary.  In class, we examine the tools used in both work to present the arguments. For example, the documentary used interviews with victims of the dictatorship, while the movie presents the story of two fictitious women. I encouraged students to reflect on their reaction to the stories told. Which story did they trust more and why? Which story did they find more compelling in terms of accepting the argument that surviving members of the Franco government should be tried for crimes against humanity? Is it enough that victims’ stories are told in this manner? More than anything I want students to become aware that stories told in film compellingly elicit empathy largely through an emotional response to the recreation of a historical universe. If this is the case, shouldn’t we make sure that the reconstruction of such universe takes into account all known aspects of the past, and not just the ones that can easily elicit an emotional connection? This may not be the function of films, but it is, nonetheless a question that we should ask ourselves as educated viewers of visual narratives.

It is in this regard that Digital Story Telling can be a great tool. In traditional teaching we ask students to read historical interpretations, analyze which sources were used, who wrote them and when they were written. We hope that by reading and understanding how historians create their interpretations, students will be then equipped to produce some interpretations of their own, or, at the very least, summarize what other interpretations have offered. Digital Story Telling offers students the opportunity to reflect on how to tell a story using visual media. The main mechanism for them to learn the language of moving images accompanied by a script is through movies, documentaries, television series and video games. By asking students to create short historical films, as those presented as Digital Story Telling projects, we are asking students to understand the questions and challenges that any film maker has to face in the process of telling a story. This is a great way of making students more critical about the films they watch either on the movie theater, television or in the games they play.

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