It Is as It Was--Feature Film in the Classroom

It Is as It Was--Feature Film in the Classroom - It Is as...

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t is as it was,” declared Pope John Paul II after previewing The Passion of the Christ , Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the last hours of Christ that was released on February 25, 2004. At least that is what was reported by Steve McEveety, Gibson’s producer. Several days later, a Vatican spokesper- son denied the authenticity of the Pope’s statement, fueling the controversy already gripping the film. Maybe only the Pope’s boss knows what the Pontiff really thought, but his specific views are not what caught my attention; it was the notion behind the unsubstantiated remark. Can any film, or any historical representation, be “as it was”? The answer for most historians is no, and Gibson has come under attack for say- ing the film is “just the way it hap- pened” (Lampman 2004), and for deny- ing the creative leaps necessary to tell any historical narrative in which docu- mentation is sketchy, as detailed in the Los Angeles Times (Shapiro 2004). Hol- lywood films based in history are inevitably a blend of historical record, fiction, and a filmmaker’s perspective. If films are not perfect representations of the past, then how can and should we interpret their images and messages? How might teachers talk about or show historically based films during lessons in a way that promotes students’ histor- ical understanding? In this article, I write about more than simply using film as a pedagogical tool, which we accept as a given, and focus on exploring more deeply what it means to interpret inevitably inaccurate film portrayals in a way that promotes, rather than dimin- ishes, historical understanding. In the following sections, I examine previous conceptions of the relevance of Hollywood film in high school, consid- er what recent researchers tell us about Hollywood film and students’ historical understanding, and offer specific sug- gestions for how to use films to promote students’ historical understanding. I use the topic of World War II as a context. The Relevance of Hollywood Film in High School Today’s classroom is less than ever insu- lated from the cultural environment, and we cannot ignore the pervasiveness of electronic mass media. Think about which has made a greater impression on the mass consciousness, myriad scholarly studies of the Normandy invasion or Steven Spiel- berg’s Saving Private Ryan ? . . . We should acknowledge film and television as the great history educators of our time. (Weinstein 2001, 27) Interpreting Hollywood’s version of history in the classroom is more impor- tant than ever. Outside the classroom, students are consuming large volumes of feature films, many of which contain historical themes or are based in history. In addition, films have great potential to motivate and engage students with his- torical content and present alternative perspectives. However, at the same time, students may need additional scaf- folding to be able to view and examine films as historical documents.
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