There has long been a tension between historical accuracy and the commercial demands of filmmaking. Fact does not always translate into entertainment for the masses, and a series made up of lectures, discussions and an exhibited film is currently exploring this strained dichotomy.
Screening History – a collaboration between Queen’s University's School of History and Anthropology and the Arts and Humanities Research Council – has been running since April 30. Held at the Ulster Museum, it centres on the broad theme of fact versus fiction.
For curator Fearghal McGarry of Queen’s University, the Screening History events are important and useful studies of the role played by the filmic medium in helping, or hindering, our understanding of the past.
McGarry has a particular interest in the idea that ‘it’s difficult to translate academic history to the screen'. There exist, he says, ‘compromises that you have to make'. This current project represents an attempt to explore, more generally, the relationship between film and history.
McGarry, who serves as the principal investigator for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, points out that the aim throughout the month of May is, of course, ‘to reach out to a public audience’. Yet, he believes that there is an intellectual goal also, namely the exploration of some ‘very basic questions’ relating to populism’s occasionally patchy record with history’s complications.
‘One starting point for me is that a lot of conventional historians are content with saying that film does history badly, that it’s inaccurate, it summarises, it conflates,' McGarry explains. 'My feeling, and the feeling of quite a few others, is that this isn’t really adequate. We need to engage with film a little bit more. We need to ask: why does film struggle to portray history in a nuanced way?’
In McGarry’s estimation, the requirement for such ties are obvious. ‘Most people get their knowledge of the past from films and TV. This is part of a wider body of trying to think critically about the problems in the film industry and how it can be done better. And also, what does film do well, because I think film does stuff that literature doesn’t.’
The Ulster Museum represents a somewhat more accessible venue than the slightly austere environs of Queen’s but, as McGarry underlines, universities everywhere are required, more and more, to connect with those apart from their student bodies, past, present and future. ‘They’re hugely about impact now, partly because research funding requires them to have an impact beyond academia.’
In the case of his discipline, he suggests, collaboration with museums, theatres and cinemas can make an impression outside the pages of scholarly journals. With that in mind, the Screening History dates are open to the public and free of charge. ‘It makes sense if we want the public to be influenced by our work.'
Indeed, when it comes to understanding and interpreting the ever precarious landscape of Irish history, north and south, enlightened input is especially vital. As far as McGarry is concerned, in a decade of centenaries experts have a duty to ‘inform those debates, otherwise you’ll have very simplistic accounts of the past'.
'You’ll have an orange and green history,' McGarry argues. 'I think it’s important that there are more complicated narratives. How do you do those narratives? You do them by engaging with the public.’
It is an ethos McGarry himself has put into practice. The featured picture at Screening History is The Enigma of Frank Ryan, a 2012 docudrama directed by Irish filmmaker and academic Des Bell, which will be screened in the Ulster Museum at 6pm, May 8.
Bell and McGarry worked together in bringing the story to life, with the latter’s 2010 biography of this controversial figure serving as one of the film’s principal bases.
Ryan was an Irish republican captured by the Nationalists while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Later released, through a quirk of fate, into the custody of the Nazis, he would blot his socialist copybook – and undermine his own legacy – by eschewing the chance to return to Ireland. He opted instead to stay in Germany and, recognising the realpolitik of the era, facilitate ties between the two countries.
In short, this level of complexity is something worthy of reexamination and ongoing scrutiny. Ryan has gone from pariah to hero in the decades since his death, and the presence of Bell’s work at the Ulster Museum suggests that its subject remains compelling.
There is an element of resistance within the world of learning to this level of engagement, says McGarry. Such stubbornness is far from productive. Historians need not be ‘passive props', he contends.
‘They should get involved, they should write scripts, pitch ideas. There was an older generation of historians that was quite sniffy about TV and film. That’s changed a lot. Part of why we’re doing this project is to say: here’s some different ways of thinking about how film does history, here’s some of the problems with how film does history and then suggesting some ways of improving that.’
The other events taking place as part of the Screening History series will go some way to illuminating McGarry's theories. They include a lecture by James Chapman, University of Leicester, entitled 'Film and Public History' on May 15; and another from Alison Ribeiro de Menezes, University of Warwick, entitled 'Screening Memory: The Spanish Civil War'.
These lectures are an opportunity to ‘exploit the fact that people are interested in history via film and TV, rather than books', concludes McGarry – one being a gateway to another. ‘I think of film as a way into thinking about a story. It’s not the last word.’
The Enigma of Frank Ryan will be screened at the Ulster Museum on May 8 at 6pm. Details of the Screening History lectures are available via the Ulster Museum website.