Using Documentary Film as a Historical Source
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This case study provides guidance on how to engage with film as a historical source. Using the documentary Life is Not Black and White (1977) as an example demonstrates how to deconstruct a film and critically evaluate it as a primary source while being mindful of its potential uses as a secondary source. Different types of films may call for different approaches, and there is no magic recipe for a critical analysis of any moving image. All films, however, regardless of their purpose—and this includes newsreels and documentaries—adopt certain narrative conventions and visual techniques that create particular meanings. They also use creative license and a complex visual lexicon to immerse the viewer in the world presented on the screen. This study shows that a careful dissection of the content of the film, followed by a close analysis of the context of its creation combined with information about how the film was viewed and received, can lead to discovering its full potential as a historical source. While we should be careful when relying on film as a source and consider the issues of intention, authenticity, and restrictions on the film-making process, this study argues that a rigorous ‘reading’ of the film may provide material worthy of historical inquiry and offers tools required to embrace it as a valid historical methodology.
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