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A View from the Classroom: Film & History Conference

By Jessica Schoenbaechler

Scholars and practitioners poked, prodded, dissected and analyzed issues relating to film and history--from recent boy bands to documentary classics--at the fourth Film & History Biennial Conference in Dallas, Texas, which ran from November 8 to 12.

Hosted by Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies and sponsored by The Center for the Study of Film and History, the conference drew an international attendance of scholars, students, editors, filmmakers, writers and historians for five days of academic paper presentations, film screenings and question and answer sessions.

Noteworthy speakers included Raymond Fielding, Dean Emeritus at Florida State University Film School; filmmakers Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker; and Betsy McLane, former executive director of IDA and co-author, with Jack Ellis, of A New History of Documentary Film.

Known for his instruction at UCLA, Temple University, University of Iowa, University of Houston and Florida State University, Professor Fielding has published books on The March of Time and the history of American newsreels, and has served as vice president of Zoetrope Studios, founded by his former student, Francis Ford Coppola. "Despite what poets say, the truth is not necessarily beautiful, nor does it set us free," said Fielding in his introduction to several March of Time newsreels. "Truth tells us who we are, why things fit and why they're not working out the way they're supposed to."

According to Fielding, The March of Time, despite being scorned by print journalists, was often the only photographic representation of historic and controversial events from 1936-1951, and had tremendous impact on how people saw the world. The series, which included re-enactments and hidden cameras, was actually banned from Germany, Japan, Russia, Italy and Spain, and was censored in several democratic countries. Fielding highlighted "Inside Nazi Germany" (1935) and segments on Louisiana politician Huey Long; the last public executioner using the guillotine in France; and a humorous piece from 1936 on a Princeton student group, the Veterans of Future Wars, whose mission was to obtain bonus pay upfront for their certain draft into World War II.

Pennebacker and Hegedus discussed their 30-year partnership with clips from Dont Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), The War Room (1993), (2001) and Al Franken: God Spoke (2006). Pennebaker fondly recalled the homemade camera rig he first used, which was the size of a small typewriter, held 10 minutes of film, and required constant monitoring for telltale sounds of the end of the roll."We shot 35 hours for The War Room versus 400 hours for," said Pennebaker. "You don't have to worry about the roll running out, but then you've got the burden of overabundance. It requires a totally different process of editing."

Other screenings included Glen Marcus' The March of the Bonus Army (2006), a documentary about the 1932 march of World War I veterans demanding payment of compensation promised for war service, and Strong Enough to Break (2006), Ashley Greyson's documentary about the band Hanson's three-year struggle with its record label and its decision to start its own label.

Allen Mondell and Cynthia Salzman Mondell of Dallas-based Media Projects, Inc. opened the conference with a discussion of the films they have made together over the past 30 years, including Sisters of '77. Also known as The Spirit of Women, the 2004 film received a CINE Golden Eagle and a Telly Award, and aired on PBS' Independent Lens. The filmmakers were introduced by Bart Weiss, director of the Video Association of Dallas.

With up to ten different theme-based panel presentations happening at any given time, conference goers often had difficulty deciding which to attend. Topics included individual auteurs, films and film movements; pedagogy, ethics, genres, hybrid forms and the history of film; and issues of the environment, war and minority populations.

I attended several of the panel discussions about environmental issues and films, including Hanna Musiol's "Primitive Environments in Robert and Francis Flaherty's Documentaries," in which she pointed out the ways that images of people and the environment are often embedded with the filmmaker's notions about culture. "Nanook of the North (1922) tells a common modernist tale: the more we watch, the less we see," Musiol said, citing Nanook's struggle to find food without revealing the underlying cause of that struggle. While Flaherty went on to make several more films, Nanook died of hunger two years after the film was released to international acclaim.

Rebecca Wexler's "Onward Christian Penguins: Wildlife Films and the Image of Scientific Authority" discussed the debates on creationism and gay marriage that coincided with the 2005 release of March of the Penguins. "Viewers expect scientific authority from nature and wildlife films and many even advertise their scientific pedigree," Wexler said. "Many of these films are not based on science, but rather on allegorical narratives that encourage anthropomorphism and are reinforced by narrative editing techniques."

Professors Jim Welsh (Salisbury University) and Ken Nolley (Willamette University), in their roundtable discussion of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke (2006), asked a simple question: Why didn't the movie receive more attention? According to the presenters and audience responses, Hurricane Katrina was incomprehensible for most of American viewers, the film had a loose narrative structure not unlike the jazz music that wove throughout each story, and the dissemination of New Orleanians effectively dismantled the collective discourse surrounding the tragedy.

Public television's historical programs were deconstructed and critiqued by historian Matt Sutton (Oakland University) and producer Linda Garland, who presented clips from their upcoming documentary on celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who vanished from a California beach only to reappear six weeks later with unbelievable tales of kidnapping and escape. "How do you present an event when no one knows what really happened?" they asked. Their answer was to contextualize McPherson's life to postulate why she disappeared.

Aurora Scheelings, from Australia's Brisbane University, discussed the impact of reality television on historical programming, which has resulted in shows like The Colony, in which participants recreate life from a New South Wales colony 200 years ago. Scheeling was employed to create an observational documentary on the making of the series, only to have her work pulled from broadcast because it revealed too much about the filmmaker's manipulations.

The discussions on historical programming brought up important issues: Can people really "re-enact" a time that doesn't exist anymore? How do writers cut down a book of several hundred pages to a script of 22? Ultimately, conference participants identified many new areas of film and history to explore and more work to be done.

A documentary filmmaker based in Dallas, Texas, Jessica Schoenbaechler currently conducts research and writes for The Art of Living, a 26-part HD series on artists and art therapists produced by AMS Production Group. Her documentary Beach Drive: Public Rights and Private Property recently aired on PBS.