17 December 2007

Contesting history

Commercial filmmakers of history – such as David Lean, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Mel Gibson, among others – have always attracted controversy and criticism. They have been accused of distorting historical records, reconfiguring history to mean something else altogether. As a film viewer, this criticism has always bothered me.

As a film viewer, I know commercial filmmakers of history are not historians. They have never claimed to be so. I look to historical films for knowledge and inspiration, as much as for entertainment. Anybody who offers an interpretation of the past, breaking down myths, is welcome by me… so long as the depiction is not a total fantasy.

I had read somewhere that Oliver Stone views himself as a historical dramatist in the tradition of William Shakespeare and the Greeks. If I’ve understood it right, Stone says, like Shakespeare’s history plays like ‘Richard III’ and ‘Henry V’, his historical films like ‘JFK’ and ‘Platoon’ are a mix of fact and fiction.

In his films, Oliver Stone attempts to reveal larger truths by challenging the mainstream, i.e. generally-accepted, views of history. His films offer a meaning of the past, contesting traditional/official narratives of historians, critiquing dominant ideologies, in an effort to unravel some of the darker, questionable aspects of our past.

After all, history is not only about kings, queens, presidents, soldiers/warriors, wars, conspiracies and collapse of empires. History is also about ideology, corruption, abuse of power, breakdown of order, freedom, loss, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, confusion, despair, exhaustion, racism, brutality and regard/disregard for humanity.

We, as film viewers (and that includes historians), are often uncomfortable with some of the narratives and conclusions that filmmakers like Stone, Scott and Gibson advocate. They make us think not only about our past, but also about who we are. I remember being deeply moved by ‘No Man’s Land’, a film by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, which questioned the meaninglessness of war. The film left me somewhat helpless.

Films like ‘No Man’s Land’, Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and Stone’s ‘Platoon’ not only represent history, they also influence our perception of life and question our moral standing.

No comments: