Must film be fiction?

‘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.

Australian history is recognised as an area of national importance. Visiting overseas academics are amazed to see Australian historians being quoted on the front pages of our newspapers. Once upon a time, historians loved ‘debates'. Over the last decade, history has been framed as a more adversarial, violent combat. Our historians are now warfatigued. When John Howard launched the National Museum of Australia – the only ‘big thing' to come from the Centenary of Australia in 2001 – his pained expression said it all. At stake was the nation's identity. ‘Howard's war' deteriorated from a gentlemanly game to a pie-throwing competition. As the ‘war' dragged on, it was waged over the long-dried ink of aging footnotes. Its protagonists almost forgot that there might be Aboriginal people alive and willing to comment on the legacies of frontier violence. The media often seemed unaware of Aboriginal historians in the academy. As footnote fetishism reached its climax, the public switched channels and the ‘history wars' were taken off prime time.

The peace did not last long. A more literary, and more politely conducted, ‘war' quickly erupted – this time over genre rather than political intent: the relationship between history and fiction. Kate Grenville had paddled down the Secret River (Text, 2007) to ‘discover' that novelists could write better history than historians. After the elegant twirls of Dancing with Strangers (Text, 2003), Inga Clendinnen stepped on to the dance floor. This debate is not new; novelists often claim to have ‘discovered' documents historians have already used, and to be the only ones who can make history come alive. A book by Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction? (UNSW Press, 2004), exposes the long dynamic story of narrative and history – from Herodotus to the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibition and the recent ‘wars'.

A lot of historians use fiction to teach history, for books can spark interest in reluctant readers, and explore feeling, emotion and intimate relationships often not backed by archival evidence. Kate Grenville's Joan Makes History (UQP, 1988) was brilliant in the way she imaginatively recreated female perspectives during Australia's convict era. Similarly, historical films are often used in teaching.

Using drama, character, colour and evocation of sound, novelists and filmmakers can appeal to many senses. The late Greg Dening thought historians could too, by inviting them to explore the theatrical nature of historical writing as embodied performance. Historians should be reflexive, delve deep, and transcend the ordinary; they should excite, perform and ‘fly'. The best historical ideas and interpretation will be based on careful research, innovative analysis and good writing. As a profession, however, historians may need to learn to fly with new equipment. To some historians, non-text media is viewed suspiciously – as something with glitter and excitement, but as ephemeral as fireworks. Younger historians are more interested, but they will need to have a lot of energy to have an impact on the history delivery required for film and television.

THE BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE Australia was touted as an oppurtunity for Australians to find out about our history. A Tourism Australia poll revealed that many Australians did not know that Japan attacked Darwin during World War II. Many believed that the Japanese had attacked Sydney, while 80 per cent of those surveyed thought more bombs fell on Pearl Harbor than Darwin. Northern Territory Minister Marion Scrygmour had educational hopes: ‘The film will lift the curtain for many Australians, particularly those from younger generations, on this important moment in our nation's history.' Tourism Australia's marketing promised self-learning for an international audience: ‘Lose yourself in the movie. Find yourself in the country.' The unpleasant ‘Pom' Lady Sarah Ashley is supposedly ‘transformed through a combination of the incredible beauty of the Australian landscape and the Australian people'. In this, Lady Ashley becomes slightly ‘Aboriginal' and the land becomes truly her own; ‘our' country, as the King proclaims.

As the movie mixes political sincerity with tongue-in-cheek, the Wild West with ‘Down Under' Crikey! cartoonishness, it is easy to be cynical. Australia makes some strained efforts to avoid cultural insensitivity, but I loved the feisty horsemanship of the female drovers, the stampede, the cinematic and boyish magic that stopped the beasts in their tracks, and the non-English speaking power of David Gulpilil's enigmatic King. Perhaps the movie's huge box office and the pulling power of sexy Hugh Jackman and accomplished Nicole Kidman have increased Australia's northern exposure and alerted people to the fact that we have a history. Movies can be powerful – even the primary purveyors of history education. While you don't go to a Hollywood-style movie and expect historical accuracy, Australia fused the real and the unreal in a fashion that will further confuse Australians.

As well as the official hype, the film creates its own historical credentials. Bringing the child removal policy and the Japanese attacks of World War II together, it opens with ‘factual' newsreel style captions and footage. Australia is book-ended with reference to factual policy and the reassuring statement that the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had ‘offered an apology' to the stolen generations. The lead boy went back to Arnhem Land. Kevin apologised. History finishes. The difficult, complex questions are omitted.

In the fictionalised Australia, the Japanese targeted ‘Mission Island', the kind of island ‘half-caste' home to which Nana Fejo and others mentioned in Rudd's apology speech were sent. Residents of Melville and Bathurst Island sighted the bombers overhead, and Father John McGrath fruitlessly radioed Darwin. Both islands had missions for children of mixed descent who were not evacuated until after the bombing. Japanese Zeros dived on Bathurst Island and hit it with machine-gun fire, but only Hagime Toyoshima landed – when he crashed on Melville Island on his return journey. Tiwi man Mattias Ngapiatilawai captured him and Toyoshima became the first Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil.

Luhrman opted to make the goodies and baddies clear-cut. The Japanese only appear as enemy soldiers, not the pearl divers, fishermen and skilled boatmen who were living in and around Darwin. In the late 1930s, about a hundred and fifty Japanese-owned pearling vessels worked around Bathurst and Melville Islands, and the men had children with Aboriginal women. In the movie, the missions, police and government were baddies because they collaborated to steal children; the Japanese landed and tried to kill the stolen kids. Fortunately for Japan's reputation, they did not kill the young Aboriginal star or Hugh Jackman.

Some Indigenous leaders have approved Australia's rendition of the stolen children history. Kathy Mills (nee McGinness), long-time activist for Territorians of mixed descent, went to the Darwin premiere. She really liked it, and felt that, although it was obviously fiction, it captured the essence of the child removal story. Marcia Langton celebrated the film while Germaine Greer was appalled. Many of my friends liked it a lot.

Most troubling to me was the heterosexual white couple ennobled by their willingness to take on an Aboriginal child. Celibate missionaries? Stay away. Glamorous romantics? Don't let the government stop you. After their many ordeals, the couple finally gain the reward of parenting an extremely cute, clever and musical child. Sexual tension between the main actors, wistful looks and emotive music build the thrilling excitement of screen romance. Once achieved, it is as if the racism-crossing past love of the bronzed Drover and the pure white love of the barren Lady Ashley exonerate them both from the ‘child stealer' label.

On first viewing, I was quite impressed that some of the settings and characterisations seemed historically based. The Drover's life story was a little like Bill Harney's. Bruce Spence's government man was well cast as the awkward-looking Chief Protector of Aborigines Cecil Cook. They must have employed a historical adviser, I reasoned, or some kind of archival researcher who did their homework well. In order to find out, I conscientiously read Australia's voluminous and commendably egalitarian rolling credits. But I could see no mention of a historian or historical adviser. I spotted an Indigenous liaison officer, an Indigenous costume advisor, but no historian. Then, on the fuzziest roll, I finally saw the small ‘inspired by' acknowledgment to Xavier Herbert's Poor Fellow My Country (Collins, 1975). With this, my assumptions about a historical adviser collapsed. Now the film's ‘historicity' made sense; Herbert's ‘historical novel' provided a prefabricated northern history with a cast of ‘factional' characters and multi-sensory moments that traversed World War II. After all, fiction writers write histories better.

The origins of several key characters, as well as Herbert's pre-painted ‘historical backdrop', can be found in this novel. Herbert's depiction of the war was closer to fact than the film. Herbert sought advice on useful books on Aboriginal legends, finding out about the Rainbow Serpent from Baldwin Spencer's writings on the Arrente. Ever since, hybrid myths of serpentry have circuitously permeated contemporary popular culture.

DRAWING ON FICTION for a dramatic film may well be superior to using a history book or an expert. We might get a good movie out of a good novel, but not good history. Imagine the eye-opening educational potential of a well-researched documentary or a docu-drama telling the story of Darwin and Bathurst Island's actual war. This might include how Aboriginal people, who in these parts often spoke some Japanese, responded when Japanese pilots parachuted in desperation onto their land.

Some people have tried to move Australian historians along. Bob Carr tried to bring filmmakers and historians together and also encouraged documentaries with prizes. Carr invited archival doco-maker Ken Burns to Sydney, and his New South Wales Premier's History Prizes included an audio-visual category. The prime minister's history prize also invites audio-visual entries. The rules do not require a historian to be involved.

When she was head of television at the ABC, Sandra Levy initiated a major push to connect with leading historians to scope ideas for television. With proven public demand for historical themes, including archaeological digs and historical ‘reality TV' shows such as The 1940s House, a series of meetings brought together some of the most innovative historians around the country. The Humanities Research Centre's Iain McCalman was enthusiastic and started to think of broader ways that humanities scholars might engage with media, film and digital media experts. The Council of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences was to move this forward, but has not yet made the anticipated headway in building bridges between academics and screen industry.

One such history effort was Rewind, a magazine-show with ‘history detectives' pretending to single-handedly ‘discover' new facts about history. SBS followed with Hilton Cordell's The Colony, a reality-TV series that threw people into ‘first settler' mode. Unusually for Australian television producers, they worked closely with historians at all stages of production and took what they had to say seriously. And now we see the highly successful (celebrity) family history formula of Who Do You Think You Are? Alex West, chief executive of Screen Australia, arrived fresh from producing this series for British television. Constructing Australia was a prize-winning Film Australia initiative with Richard Evans in which West worked collaboratively with senior historian Dr John Hirst.

Hirst has served as a Board Member for Film Australia (now Screen Australia), as well as on the Council of the multimedia oriented National Museum of Australia. Leading film history expert Professor Jill Matthews sits on the Board of the National Film and Sound Archive. The new CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive, Darryl McIntyre, has a doctorate in history. While all this seems promising, historians in the academy are not driving what television buys as history. Thinking nobody wants to hear them, they are politely staying away. At the 2005 Film Australia ‘Making History' workshop, Hirst called for historians to take on film as a medium: ‘I don't think that the academy is the enemy of this project. I think the academy can contribute a lot to it. More than that, film might find new ways of exploring our history. It is a hard history to penetrate and I don't think the historians in their books can say they've said all that has to be said.' Tessa Morris-Suzuki's The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History (Verso, 2005) argues that students of history need to understand film and how its ‘rolling narrative of moving images' creates emotional impacts and shapes ‘shared feelings of identification'. They also need to understand how different media co-exist and interact with each other. Historians in the academy need to be better educated viewers and collaborators.

Peter Weir's historical adviser for Gallipoli, Bill Gammage, objected to the casting of Mel Gibson because his height would have precluded him from the army. While height presents little problem in filmed warfare, Gammage was correct to be concerned about the accuracy of the landings and other issues. He lamented that his big Gallipoli credit as ‘Historical Adviser' was ludicrous, as he only advised on the biscuit tins; another version has it as the bootlaces. Gammage's tale has become a fable where film becomes the big bad wolf.

Historians can certainly offer more than the ‘facts'. Their trade encompasses sophisticated research, insightful historical conceptualisation and path-breaking interpretation. Historians get frustrated that producers prefer simplistic, ‘true' or ‘false' style storylines – for example, ‘Is this really Ned Kelly's skull?' – rather than the more expansive, revealing historical questions. Scripts are inclined towards clichés rather than fresh ways of seeing.

This doesn't mean that historians are allergic to projects involving new media, including participation media. A number are making history accessible via digital history sites, developing valuable by-products of their archival research. So why can't this happen in the film industry, especially historical documentaries?

Some historians and numerous cultural theorists are critiquing film and teaching about the place of history in film. But relatively few Australian historians are actually involved in making them. Late in 2008, a Film and History Association conference was held at the University of Otago called ‘Remapping Cinema, Remaking History'. At least a hundred and fifty papers were presented, but only three people, including myself, offered papers on films they were making. Rather than being integrated into relevant topic themes, we were shunted into a panel entitled: ‘Makers Comment on Their Practice'. Like curiosities at a large zoo, we had been placed in the special exhibit category.

As a profession, Australian historians are humble about what they can offer in the field of public history generally. There are some boundary crossers, including Ned Kelly expert Ian Jones. Producer and director Andrew Pike of Ronin Films, with whom I am working on several film projects, is an accomplished historian. Indigenous filmmaker/historian Frances Peters-Little and filmmaker Rachel Perkins bring a strong historical knowledge to Indigenous history. ABC radio history programs such as Hindsight and Rearview have done exceptionally well, using highly trained historians as producers who in turn draw upon the best expertise to produce entertaining and informative programs. A promising development is that some students are now incorporating film in historical PhDs – albeit in interdisciplinary departments.

WHEN I WAS in first-year university, my cousin Michael Hasson enrolled me in a filmmaking course in Brisbane; the technology was complicated and I let him hold the camera. Ten years ago, ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall told me everyone could learn how to make a film, but I still wasn't ready to jump in. Clearly, DIY participation is the way ahead. In their writings on history and film, both Paul Smith and Charles Geshekter argue that if historians wish to avoid frustration and disappointment, they must know enough to be their ‘own producer'; historians should be identifying and evaluating not just the text, but all the components of the visual and aural message.

The screen industry could adopt best practice models to enable more of this to happen. ‘Factual filmmakers' such as Michael Cordell routinely ask their researchers to consult with the top historians, but others are openly disparaging. Nial Fulton, producer of the Irish-Australian cannibal historical drama The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, which he dubbed a ‘factual drama', commented: ‘It's just a cracking story and I didn't have to hire people with big beards to tell me all the difficult stuff.'

Historians have appallingly little impact in shaping the history content on our screens. Australia has received a lot of criticism for its taxpayer funding, but the whole industry is heavily subsidised, as are the public broadcasters buying Australian history content. Yet, in all the boxes that must be ticked for film funding, there is no requirement for ‘factual' or historical filmmakers to engage a historian. Nonetheless, many historical docos are touted as ‘educational', ‘realistic', ‘historically accurate' or ‘based on a true story'. Despite the government subsidies, there is no quality control on ‘history'. Medical shows employ medical specialists; police dramas employ psychologists and forensic experts. Kids learn history from film and television, yet there is no quality assurance for historical content and no incentives to enhance quality. Expertise, knowledge, the latest research breakthroughs are not getting into Australian history films – dramatic or factual. Except as talking heads, the historians undertaking the latest research are rarely consulted. This reveals an arrogant undervaluing of historical expertise, and raises serious questions of quality control over public spending.

The 2020 Summit of 2008 held the promise of a more innovative Australia that would break down the old binaries. A cloud lifted, and academics and industry experts were meeting for an exchange of national benefit. Now the recession is darkening the skies, the days ahead can be a building time for culture, not just for skyscrapers.

Kim Carr's portfolio as Minister for Innovation and Research sounded 
forward thinking and holistic. Its Venturous Australia, the National Innovation System report recommended ‘knowledge connection', and a strategy that aimed: ‘To build concentrations of excellence, encourage collaboration and achieve better dissemination of knowledge', including building capacity for research organisations to ‘partner with each other'. Current ministerial portfolio divisions don't help. University history comes under both Kim Carr and Julia Gillard as Minister for Education while film funding is under Peter Garrett's Arts umbrella. History is ‘research'; film is ‘arts/creative arts'. Screen is apparently not research, so what can be done?

While innovation involves unusual match-making and risk-taking, key funding bodies like the Australian Research Council and quality review bodies readily become hostages to the most conventional training, measuring and gate-keeping. Except for the ‘creative arts', Excellence in Research in Australia has made stifling assumptions that ‘quality' humanities research products are best ranked by the stiffest text formats.

By ensuring that the knowledge creators in the humanities and social sciences are linked with the creative arts industries, the power and punch of creativity can be enhanced. Until this happens, we are left behind. Academics and the creative arts people are forced into separate spheres with few incentives to encourage collaboration.

If the Rudd government is serious about education, history and innovation, it needs a new script for its funding and qualitative mechanisms. Screen Australia's funding guidelines are inward-looking; they repeatedly emphasise ‘screen professionals' and the ‘screen industry', mentioning nothing about pairing with knowledgeable experts in the humanities or elsewhere to enhance content, concept development and innovation. The Australian Research Council funds research in the history discipline, but not the production of history in diverse formats. If its rules won't allow, some kind of ‘Screen History Making Grant' scheme should be developed under somebody else's umbrella. After all, we are talking about a national history problem.

In the US, filmmakers can apply for funding to make historical films. Grant approval requires carefully prepared assessments from leading university-based historians. The National Endowment for the Humanities then gives out tiered grants for historical documentaries: smaller grants of up to US$80,000 for planning and scripting, and large grants up to US$700,000 for production. This provides an excellent funding stream plus an imprimatur of educational quality that is valuable to teachers. Worthiness can clash with entertainment, but this provides a national system for educational history films, thus enabling strong expert collaborations and quality content.

Digital humanities grants in the US have similarly brought together academic and technical expertise, knowledge and innovation. While it's difficult to spot in the documents, the Australian Academy of Humanities' John Byron reports some policy progress in this direction. American digital humanities grants encourage a whole variety of digital delivery modes, but they insist that the outcomes ‘should rest on sound humanities scholarship and enhance the project's humanities content for the general public in ways that take unique advantage of the proposed format'.

We need genuine history products to ‘construct Australia' for television and film.

Australian universities produce cutting-edge historical research, yet there is a troublesome gap between knowledge creation and dissemination. We should be looking to how to share expert knowledge to much better effect. If historians must fight another ‘war', I suggest it should be over what passes for history on Australian film and television. To get started, both historians and filmmakers might get together to develop a series of pilot projects of national significance and of high research, innovation, entertainment and historical quality. This would be a great national infrastructure project: a jobs boost and a knowledge boost.

In my view, there is no need for filmmakers to cannibalise history. Big beards are irrelevant. Historians should not be allowed to make television boring, or pedantic. Rather than being at war with the camera, historians need to learn what to shoot, and how it should be shot. History experts and screen experts could learn to collaborate. If they don't, Australia's history films will always be fiction.

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