Reflective Essay: Theory to Practice, Film Studies in South Africa

“What is new about new historicism in particular is its recognition that history is ‘the history of the present’, history is in the making rather than being monumental and closed, history is radically open to transformation and rewriting” *
Set up, South Africa, 2011

I begin this article in some state of expectation, and some anxiety.

At the moment, my Year 3 class of Film Students are in the pre-production stages of several film projects. For several students, this is itself the final stage of a three-year programme that will finish in December at which point they will graduate into the South African Film and Television community with a National Diploma in Film and Television Studies.

One of these said projects is one that I have concocted: in groups of 3/4/5 they are to devise and create a short docudrama based on a specific known or unknown moment in South African history.

Which is the kind of project one would expect such students to undertake at such a juncture in their political, creative and productive careers.

However, what intrigues me as a teacher is how we arrived at this point in the first instance. Was it designated as a specific outcome in the course from the beginning of the year? Is it an official part of the curriculum? The answer being no. Not precisely.

What should be emphasised is that the production assignment so described emerges not from one of our Director’s courses, no scriptwriting, nor producing. Instead it is an outcome of my course in Film Theory and Analysis which, in the case of Year 3, is designed to introduce graduating students to the ‘Cinema of the Mavericks’.

Semester 1 Mavericks
In keeping with this remit, we started the year, as you might expect, with Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965). I thought it best thereafter to switch back to familiar name – Hitchcock – but to a film which one of the students were aware of, The Wrong Man (1957). Following the path of least resistance we then proceeded to Terence Malik’s Badlands (1974) – I had brought a video copy from Berlin; and this neatly complemented the epic revisionism of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). With the films thus viewed, analyzed and written upon, we headed smoothly for the end of the semester whereupon it was time for me to reflect back on progress so far and chart the course for Christmas.

I embarked upon a teaching career 20 years ago soon after graduating from the London Film School and since then have always regarded curricular planning and development as an extension of creative writing – more specifically screenwriting, my first love. The script/curricular plan has its aims and objectives, its own set up opening gambits, cruel midpoint complications and (mostly) happy denouements that reach out to futures yet unseen but hopefully within reach. Unlike a screenplay, the actants and director partake in a real-live event that over weeks and months often breaks out into unexpected twists and sometimes grim stuttering impasses. And like any good story, the curricular should have its own lurking subtexts that, once touched upon, reveal a series of subterranean narrative echoes that not even the author was ever conscious of.

Hence, when it came to reflecting on our Maverick course, and trying thereby to work through to a Semester 2 narrative segue that would get us to Christmas, I realized one feature of our films which I hadn’t been conscious of when lacing that Semester One programme together. All our films (other than Pierrot le Fou) – from Hitchcock through Malik to Cimino – were based by their respective director’s on actual historical events. The Wrong Man (1957), as we know, is celebrated as Hitchcock’s only wholesale gesture towards the documentary style, charting as it does the real-life arrest of Christopher Emmanuel Balestero (played by Henry Fonda); Heaven’s Gate (1980) is grounded on the 1892 Johnson Country War that set homesteaders against the invading cattle barons; while in Badlands (1974), Malick looked to the 1958 cross-country murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

While I, as Film Scholar, was aware of the production histories of each film, I was not so aware – as a Curriculum Planner – of how, as a series, they amounted to an effective exploration of how directors/screenwriters adapt so differently and so compulsively the movements of history towards (maverick) narrative storytelling. While critics such as Veeser and Greenblatt in the 1980s were advancing the principles of new historicism, film directors were doing it for real.

From Subtext to Text, Semester 2
At the end of Semester One I shared my newly formed insights with the students and proceeded to work on our next assignment which would bring to the fore the sub textual motifs that had been guiding our progress so far. We were to become new historicists in our own right.

With a more conscious design in mind, I have proceeded to focus our enquiring efforts on how different (maverick) directors, working on very different ideological and stylistic agendas, have themselves creatively scrutinized and explored a pivotal moment and place in history.

In keeping with the course remit, therefore, we began with the work of Eisenstein and his particular theories of montage; our core text has been Oktober (1927); in deliberate contrast, our second director has been Warren Beatty whose Oscar-winning epic Reds (1981) charts the careers of journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant. Both films are notably centered on the events of the 1917 October Revolution that saw the fall of the Provisional Government at the hands of the Bolsheviks and both films feature key scenes – notably the taking of the Winter Palace – from oddly very contrasting points-of-view. While Eisenstein elides character for mass, Beatty foregrounds character in a way that suggests that an American was in some ways (even partly) instrumental/influential in Lenin’s eventual success with the Petrograd Soviets.(the film was actually shown at a private screening at the White House for President Reagan).

In preparation for Reds (1981), which is uniquely about historical veracity, Students Research Units have presented on the beginnings of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the IWW, the history of St. Petersburg, the Suffragette movement, 1980s feminism, Eisenstein montage and the films of Warren Beatty. As a final unique cinematic experience, and ne reflecting back on Eisenstein and Beatty, students were then presented with anuninterrupted viewing of Alexander Sukorov’s 93minte contemplation on Russian history, art and culture in Russian Ark (2002).

From Theory to Production

From critically engaging with the films of Hitchcock, Cimino, Malick, Eisenstein, Warren Beatty (!) and Russia’s Alexander Sukorov, the film students here in South Africa in what is a Theory and Analysis module, are now focusing their own energies in revisiting key plot points in their own country’s history in order to dramatically re-create, however provocatively, that moment’s relevance to them….

August 2011 Denouement

The student films are to be completed by November 7th, so I shall revisit this page in due course to update on the finished films and their makers….and share ruminations on the perils and joys of Curriculum Planning.

■Professor, Film, Tshwane University of Technology
■Author, Conference Speaker, Consultant.
■Member, Oxford Education Society.

*Bennett and Royale, Introduction to Literature, Theory and Criticism, 2009


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