My graduate seminar read Bruno Ramirez’s essay, “Clio in Words and in Motion: Practices of Narrating the Past”, on the same day I incorporated this clip into a lecture on the Atlantic Slave Trade for my introductory survey on Early Latin America:
It was striking the extent to which survey students (it’s a class of about 120) reacted differently to the clip than to still photos that demonstrated the exact same phenomena, explicated by my own lecture narrative. I find pictures such as this one:
to be very powerful. But, just as the slavers were seeking to maximize their cargo potential, the image is easily distanced from its human implications. Such distancing is impossible in the clip above from Amistad. Ramirez actually criticizes Spielberg’s film for mythologizing the white savior during the courtroom scenes, which points to the ambiguities of film as historical medium. Historians often feel significant discomfort with the fictional angle attached to “based on a true story”, and historical film classes abound in which the narrativization of historical subjects is critiqued through a combination of primary and secondary sources. I’ve done this quite a bit myself. (A critique of La Otra Conquista forms a central part of this survey class.) This sort of critique is very much preferable to handwringing over the authenticity of costumery or period technology, as far as I’m concerned. Though, I should note that I also showed part of Quilombo to the same class the next meeting, and they couldn’t get past the magical realism and 1980s production values to connect with that film.
The critique of accurateness of the narrative likewise limits the potential of film as a didactic tool. Last semester I taught a course called Modern Latin American History through Film, and what surprised me most in the response of students to a wide variety of modern Latin American cinema was their willingness to allow the films to reinforce their perception of Latin America as Other. I wonder if it was actually the “historian’s approach” to the films that might have reinforced that experience. It wasn’t, though, a universal reaction (but a majority), and for one Guatemalteca in the class, seeing the films produced a profound empathy that helped clarify her own sense of Guatemalan-ness in exile.
From the didactic perspective, then, I think the power of film is in producing that human connection defined as empathy for a past that is all too distant and Other, much as the immigrant is in provincial corners of the country. The question remains though, is that emotive connection worth the risk of students misunderstanding the content of a film as “true”?