Film and the Historical Imagination

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-08-14

The James Beveridge Media Research Centre at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi offered a summer course on "Film and the Historical Imagination", conducted by Ranjani Mazumdar (an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at JNU). The course ran on alternate working days for the two weeks between July 27–August 7, and comprised five illustrated lectures followed by film screenings, with the sixth morning reserved for a round-table discussion. Participants were charged INR650 for admission.

Quoting from the invitation for applications:

Film is an archive of sensations, of emotions, of images and of sounds. As a powerful recorder of life and its events, Film lends itself to organizing not just historical knowledge but also commenting on the nature of historical narration. This two week introductory course on Film and the Historical Imagination will map the specific ways in which history and ideas about the past get constructed through the medium of cinema. Issues related to questions of evidence, memory, historical catastrophe, nostalgia, myth and heritage will be discussed and analyzed in relation to world cinema.

Hassath remembered attending and liking Ms. Mazumdar's lectures during a film appreciation course at FTII some years ago; this course sounded interesting too, and the schedule and charges suited us perfectly (we would not have been able to attend if either had been notably different). We applied for admission, and were both accepted (to my considerable surprise, since the course was advertised as being for "graduate students and media researchers").

This was an experimental, condensed version of a longer course taught at JNU. The five lectures we had were The Historical Impulse in Film (which discussed the way cinema has affected how we think about history, and the creation of the "history effect" in cinema), Film Genre and the Historical Imagination (about the context and development of the Western and Musical genres), The Historical Event in Film and the challenges involved in representing it, Film and the Historical Biopic (about the factors influencing the selection of historical characters about whom films are made), and Historical Imagination and the Documentary Impulse (about the "liveness" of footage and the ways in which documentaries differ from fiction).

It became obvious very quickly that Ranjani was an excellent teacher, that she was deeply interested in the subject, and had prepared the sessions carefully. I enjoyed all of her lectures thoroughly, but the first and last had the highest concentration of ideas that were new to me, so I found those the most interesting by far.

The first lecture on the "history effect" was very thought-provoking, but I was disappointed that the discussion of techniques used to create an impression of historicity was confined largely to matters of superficial detail, and that the very different—and very powerful—ways in which Tarkovsky (in Andrei Rublyov) and Bergman (in The Seventh Seal) represented history were not mentioned (but I understand that Ranjani does discuss them in her longer course). I was also a little disappointed that the course focused mostly on films from Hollywood (about which I know very little).

We were given a reader with two or three papers meant to set the context for each day's discussions. Some of these were a pleasure to read (like Edward Buscombe's introduction to the Western genre, about which I knew very little), but I found many of them difficult to get through. In most cases, the best I could do was to identify an occasional sentence or two that made perfect sense, while the rest remained obscure. There wasn't enough time in two weeks to cover so much material of such density in sufficient detail.

(I'm being careful here not to dismiss the papers I found impenetrable as being nonsense, even though the obscure prose was often annoying. In fact, the bits I did understand made me want to read more; this despite the frequent references to the work of familiar characters from Intellectual Impostures. But I'm not sure I would have made the effort without the recommendation from Ranjani.)

Film screenings

We were particularly looking forward to the film screenings, even though we didn't know in advance which films would be shown.

These films were selected only for their relevance to the subject of the day's lecture (and selected very well, in that respect), but both The Battle of Algiers and Chile: Obstinate Memory were brilliant films in themselves, no matter how you looked at them. Missing wasn't quite in the same league, but enjoyable nonetheless (it brought to mind The Revolution Will Not Be Televised).

I thought the post-screening discussions came too soon afterwards to be useful. I would have liked to have more time to reflect on each film, especially since I was watching them with an eye towards the points made in class. I suspect there were others who felt the same way, and the lecturer seemed a bit worried at how few people participated in these discussions.

But then there were the people who felt compelled to say something after every film, trying hard to sound profound and insightful. The worst of them, whom we dubbed Mr. Voiceover, specialised in repeating—at great length, in a slow drawl—what the lecturer had already said, with a healthy dose of name-dropping sprinkled on. (I was amused to note that he had his own little fan club, who hung on his every word and went so far as to imitate his manner of speech.)

Administrivia: I was disappointed that a lot of time was lost every day in fiddling with the audio-visual equipment. I would have thought a film lab would have sorted out sound and video problems long ago, rather than having to grapple with them every day. Likewise, I would have expected a single switch to cut the lights in the room when a clip was being shown; but instead, people seated near the corners of the room had to get up and run to individual switchboards each time. But those are minor quibbles about an otherwise brilliant course.

I enjoyed my first contact with academia, and I have a participation certificate to show for it.