Public History Series: Documentary Film

While museums are a very common way for the public to experience history in the field, they experience history in their living rooms by watching historical documentaries.  These are often produced in cooperation with historians and public historians to ensure their accuracy.  There is, however, a very special technique required to take history from a book and put it on PBS or the History Channel.

Historical documentaries can come in two forms.  The first is the traditional “Based on Historical Events” film.  These films are a nightmare for historians because while historical sources are used in the production of the film, there is a creative twist to it that detracts from its accuracy.  In a film about George Washington, for example, he may be depicted talking with the members of his Cabinet.  We have an idea what was discussed, but we do not know the full dialogue, so that is filled in.  Other issues, architecture, costuming, etc. all add up.  If done correctly, everything would be period, but that is not always the case.  This is a popular form of documentary and they are effective at engaging the public.  They encourage a small portion of the audience to do further research, but the majority take the documentary film as fact.

The other type of documentary is the kind you are used to seeing on the History Channel or PBS.  That is the story of an event being told using actual images or videos from the event with historians commentating.  Perhaps one of the most famous filmmakers of this type is Ken Burns.  His series on the Civil War changed the way people thought about documentaries.  He used the right mix of reenactment, interpretation, and historical images to bring the Civil War to life.  That is not to say that every historian loves Burns’s work, in fact, a lot of historians hate him.  However, he does make entertaining films, and does it without sacrificing integrity.

So the next time you are watching a documentary on PBS or the History Channel, pay close attention to how well it is at telling a story and whether or not they are allowing the history to tell itself.  Also, watch the credits and notice how many historians worked on the project.  The History Channel and PBS have historians on staff to review the films before they are aired, but each project will have its own historians involved.  Be aware, all documentaries have some form of bias and that is usually easy to detect.  Once the viewer looks past the bias, there is an important story being told and it is up to historians and public historians to ensure the stories are told accurately.

NOTE:  This is the seventh in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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