Must film be fiction?

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  • Published 20090505
  • ISBN: 9780733323959
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

‘PRIMARILY, WE HISTORIANS write books – and academic articles,’ Yale historian Dr Jay Gitlin said in a history documentary we made together in 2006 called A Frontier Conversation. On our ‘Exchanging Histories’ tour in the Northern Territory, the high-achieving American historian grew hostile to the camera. She said it made her uncomfortable; she could not see its purpose and vowed to have nothing to do with film again. Most academic historians are trained to research and deliver in text. Although many have been developing innovative websites, most teach students to critique and deliver only by writing. Film and history courses are popular, but they are more often taught in art history, communications and media studies than in history programs. Most historians have had nothing to do with film and television productions. Those who have are still licking their wounds – usually because their advice was unheeded. Film fictionalisations made them feel that their professional integrity had been cheaply compromised.

In late 2008, after a conference in his honour at the National Library, Professor Henry Reynolds was invited to respond. Reynolds writes bestsellers. His books are so readable that I admit to having raced through one of them in an airport bookshop. Yet, reflecting back on a brilliant and highly influential career that framed significant national debates, he regretted not being more involved with television. He had been a key speaker in various documentaries, including Frontier, the 1997 television documentary inspired by his work. But he had not been an initiator, or a maker. Reynolds, with his clear agenda of getting a message to a wide audience, had been struck by the revelation that even a badly rating television program could attract an audience beyond the reach of all his books combined.

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About the author

Ann McGrath

Professor Ann McGrath is head of the History Program in the Research School of social Sciences at the Australian National University.She was Executive Producer...

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