Films as Primary Sources for History
If a picture is worth a thousand words than how much is a moving picture, or movie, worth? In the study of history, the usage of movies as primary sources is controversial. Motion pictures are more commonly well-known as sources and created for entertainment purposes. Film is a creation of a reality. This has some valuable resources for the study of history in many respects. They may or may not be representational, and some may include writing or printing. Some can be categorized as fine art, others as documentary record. Originality may or may not be important, and the content may or may not be the primary focus. History is made by people - in a sense that it is written by people positioned in time and in location, living under a certain political regime, in a certain cultural arena, and having an access to certain interpretative schemes.
There are many different types of films. Documentaries and news (newsreels in some instances) are one of the most widely recognized and less-controversial in the study of history since their purpose is not purely entertainment but instead the exploration of an aspect of the world around us. In many respects, they are exposing history as it is happening. Yet with even these films, it should be realized that they are the interpretation of the director/producer, the camera angles are chosen, the people interview are chosen, the information portrayed is chosen. Yet it still retains its advantages. This is the past at its most immediate, valuable for its record of social and cultural life (even if inevitably somewhat distorted in its art form by its purpose as something other than an accurate record). News footage has recorded, both for the cinema newsreel and for television the recent history of past wars in great detail; some of it is readily available on commercial videotapes and increasingly on multi-media CD-ROMs. The weekly newsreels have now been replaced by the much greater immediacy of television. In essence, this is history recorded at the moment of its being made - a trade-off between the ultimate in immediacy and the lack of clarity that reflection and a broader time-scale would produce.
Another form of film would be the historical series. These are the types of films produced for educational networks. They historically research a topic, choose how to represent it, and them produce it for a more or less mass audience. These films can prove quite valuable to the study of history for the elaboration of areas of interest. Also they are valuable in bringing to light aspects that many have been obscured before. On the other hand, the fault of these films lie in which information they choose to portray and not portray. Since they are produced for a mass audience, there are also concerns about them being produced accordingly, leaving out parts of information that may be pertinent in light of public interest. The films have the interesting position of being able to...