Teaching History and Culture through Film

When I retired from college teaching many years ago, I had become radicalized by my experiences with teaching International film and culture and African-American Literature.

Both courses led me to my belief that “story” is an essential ingredient in teaching students how to understand another culture. Once a student can identify with a person in a story, once they can follow a fictional narrative of a person’s life and conflicts, they are more apt to “identify”with that person, to humanize them.

Stories can also help students get a feel for a particular time period. History, I believe, can have a much more dramatic effect on a student if that history is seen within a human context.

And stories can help students understand some of the great iconic events of a culture’s history, even if those events have a kind of behind-the-scenes importance to the narrative.

“Hamlet,” for example, was written during the English Renaissance, a period marked by humanism and the monarchy as the ruling form of government (it wasn’t until late in the 17th century that the UK parliament, a carry-over from the monarchy’s royal council, began to have any meaningful power).

The story of “Hamlet” is a very simple one: a young prince eventually avenges the murder of his father, the former king of Denmark.

Hamlet’s character is very complex. He delays, he obsesses, he is cruel, he is witty, he is cynical, he is bitter, he is narcissistic, he is vulgar—all human traits that flesh out a character and make him ripe for modern psychoanalysis.

Historically, Hamlet’s character is a fleshed-out persona, a far cry from the medieval morality plays in which characters were disembodied moral abstractions like Virtue and Vice or any variation of the seven deadly sins.

There are certainly vestiges of the old time religion in Hamlet and many references to the afterlife. But Shakespeare gave us a real flesh-and-blood character, not a musty moral abstraction.

Hamlet hires a group of actors to simulate the actual murder of his father in front of his father’s murderer and brother, King Claudius. He kills an old man, Polonius, the father of Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover. He torments Ophelia into eventually committing suicide. He poisons his father’s assassin and is responsible for the cup of poison his mother accidentally drinks from.

“Hamlet” is indeed a dark human tragedy. It is not so much about the abstract moral conflicts between good and evil of the medieval morality plays, but about the pathetic loss of human life and the power of revenge and obsession. It is a play, in the end, in the true humanist tradition that drove so much of the energy of the Renaissance theater, especially in the classic Renaissance revenge tragedies of the period.

It is also a play that offers itself to rich psychoanalysis, part of the more modern humanist approaches to behavior analysis. Was Hamlet more enraged at his mother for having married his father’s assassin? Did Hamlet feel rejected by his mother? Was he still Oedipally attached to his mother? Modern directors love to play around with all of these psychoanalytic subtleties.

The play also contains an obvious political edge. England was still ruled by a monarchy. And monarchies survived by power alliances and family heritage. Although Claudius’s assassination of Hamlet’s father was a well-kept secret until Hamlet works his revenge, it was not unusual for a relative to marry an in-law’s widowed queen, if, for nothing else, to continue the family line of power.

Humanism, the break from a medieval past, the age of monarchies—all the ingredients for looking at a classic play through the lens of history and culture.

On a more modern, international level, I have found that culture and history can be more immediately internalized with a story. And, in this more modern film age, if you show a narrative on the screen, students can identify with the persons in the film narrative. They are also less apt to forget a story, even though they will probably forget all their answers on a multiple choice history test.

That relationship—between identifying with characters in a story and understanding a culture—was never more evident to me than in the Chinese film, “Farewell My Concubine.”

It was in that film that I began to get a more immediate sense of modern Chinese history. Although the film’s narrative is about the relationship between two characters in a Chinese opera group, the film takes you through a large slice of modern Chinese history, from the War Lord era all the way up to the time right after Mao’s death. It also makes specific references to the Manchurian dynasty, the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, and the ongoing civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists.

And, perhaps more significantly, “Farewell My Concubine,” gives you a strong sense of the hatred that the Communists had for all foreign influence, particularly under the Manchurians.

When I used that film, I obviously had to guide students through the many time periods the film covered. But I could do that by constantly referring back to the many complexities of the relationship between the two main characters. I could talk about them while, at the same time, place their evolving relationship in a particular time period—the Japanese invasion and the rise of the Communist party, in particular, a rise that forced the opera troupe to fit the content of its performances to the Communist regime’s strong sense of revolutionary ideals.

And there are so many other examples of how a film narrative can be used to open students up to a more immediate sense of history and culture. The famous American film classic, “Grapes of Wrath,” offers itself up as a rich and abiding look at the entire Depression culture of the American 1930s; “Citizen Kane” as the classic example of capitalism and American rugged individualism; Spike Lee’s “Malcolm,” as a narrative giving us an insight into the era of civil rights in the United States; and, more recently, “Social Network,” a fictional portrayal of the beginnings of the Facebook subculture in American society.

So much can be taught about a culture, a time period, an historical era without having to force students into the history-by-troop-movements-and-chronology-tables approach. Or without forcing them to engage in ossifying academic writing that keeps the university crowd in their tenure tracks.

Want to find out more about history and culture? Rent a film

If you like this blog, please check out this online course on The Modern History and Culture of China


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