Film, with its tangible relationship to the world it “captures”, can offer us, in flashes of insight, an immediate and unexpected access to historical realities. This article discusses how films evoke the physical sensations and emotions that still adhere to traumatic events from the past.
In writing Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe I was looking for a new way of approaching films about historical events of the tragic 20th century. I had already written a book to defend serious history films against skeptical historians who believe that historical films are inexorably pulled into the orbit of fiction. It is as if some essential defect exists in any discourse made up of images that invalidates it as nonfiction. Images and sounds of the world, as classic anthropology would have it, are data that need to be incorporated into a language-based discourse that at once exploits and dominates them, that is, gives them meaning. Historiography is perhaps even more intent on taking its distance from the sensory experience that films seem to transmit, because historical events are, for historians, defined by their pastness: they are unavailable to perception. Only language, they argue, is authorised to salvage what can still be known about the past.
It struck me as undeniable, nonetheless, that film has a direct connection to the past, due to the character of the medium itself: moving images and sounds that have a tangible relationship to the reality they “capture”, including historical reality. This is the indexical quality of the photographic image that semioticians have been at pains to describe: the image retains something of the reality of the objects it represents. If an object asserts its presence through a cinematic image, can we not assume that some aspect of the past can be directly experienced by the viewer?
Images and sounds of the world, as classic anthropology would have it, are data that need to be incorporated into a language-based discourse that at once exploits and dominates them, that is, gives them meaning.
One text encouraged me to pursue this line of thought: Sublime Historical Experience by the philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit. In this work Ankersmit makes a radical gesture: he sections off the two aspects of historical representation that historians have always considered inseparable. On one side he places historical interpretation – historiography proper – in which the historian, from his or her “objective” perspective, produces finished narratives extracted from bodies of facts. On the other side he exposes what supposedly lies “underneath”: raw experience, that immense domain infused with emotion and mood, historical sensation, to use Johan Huizinga’s concept. In the magnificent opening passages of his Waning of the Middle Ages, now nearly a hundred years old, Huizinga describes what living in fifteenth-century Europe felt like: the darkness of winter, the disparity between sickness and health, the rawness of emotion, the bells that dominated the soundscape of every city and village. Liberated from the constraints of interpretation, Ankersmit suggests, experience can speak its own “language”. Indeed, he asserts that when one is engaged in narrating events, which is what historians do, the whole dimension of experience is suppressed: one cannot, in any given moment, both interpret the world and experience it. Cognition cancels sensation.
William Guynn is professor emeritus of Art (Cinema) at Sonoma State University in California. He is the author of several books on nonfiction film, including A Cinema of Nonfiction, Writing History in Film, and Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe, and editor of The Routledge Companion to Film History.
1. Sublime Historical Experience, Stanford: Stanford University 1 Press, 2005, p. 186-187.
2. Historical Representation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 190.