Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Bringing World Cinema into the History Curriculum

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Bringing World Cinema into the History Curriculum

Article excerpt

Imagine a flyer promoting a history elective prominently featuring the image of a black-robed Death figure with the following caption: "If you would like to screen a two-hour black and white film in Swedish with English subtitles in which a knight plays chess with death while discussing the meaning of life and such philosophical questions as the existence of God, then this is the class for you." It was with some trepidation that I tried this novel approach for recruitment into a new history elective five years ago. And it worked, perhaps offering a certain snob appeal for some students. But I prefer to believe that "Introduction to World Cinema" addressed student intellectual curiosity regarding film and filmmaking as well as learning more about other cultures in our ever-shrinking world.

Over twenty-five years ago, I encountered resistance to a proposed class in which Hollywood feature films would be employed as primary sources through which to investigate the formation of American values and ideology in the post-World War II period. In other words, these films would be examined to ascertain how they reflected the time periods in which they were made. (1) Thus, I would not use High Noon (1952) to examine the American West. Instead, High Noon offers insight into such essential issues and concerns of the 1950s as the Cold War, communism and anticommunism, the Hollywood Ten, conformity, and suburbia. In a similar fashion, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) tells us more about the 1960s than the Depression era in which the film was set. A careful analysis of such films, supplemented by the well written and researched history of post-World War II America provided by William Chafe in The Unfinished Journey, has today made "U.S. History through Film" a respected part of the history curriculum at Sandia Preparatory School. (2) Having an established place for film history in the curriculum made it easier to find acceptance of "Introduction to World Cinema" by various school constituencies of administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

Recent historiographical and pedagogical trends to better place the American experience within the context of global history convinced me that the approach of the U.S. film class was a bit narrow. (3) While Hollywood continues to exert considerable influence upon international filmmaking, a purely American approach to the study of film ignores major contributions to the art of cinema in Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Accordingly, the "Introduction to World Cinema" class offers an opportunity to break down cultural and national boundaries, as well as challenge ethnic and racial stereotypes, through the medium of film--perhaps the most important art form of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This cinematic approach to world history allows students to examine the human condition through the lens of nationality, history, genre, and the artistic contribution of individual filmmakers. As with the American history film course, I expect students to place the international film texts within the historical and cultural contexts in which they were produced. Thus, a cinematic perspective provides an opportunity for upper-level students to apply their knowledge of world history from survey courses taken in their first two class years. But rather than simply a global history through film, the class is also a survey of World Cinema with representative artists and films from various historical and cultural traditions. To study the art of film properly, students must be exposed to film form or the grammar and language of film. An excellent source for understanding better how to analyze cinema is Film Art by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, a book that also might be valuable for filmmaking classes and is employed throughout the Introduction to World Cinema course. (4)

Of course, in one class it will be impossible to address equally the broad spectrum of cultures represented by world cinema, so the films I have chosen for screening in class by necessity will be somewhat selective. …

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