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Film and history

Documentaries

Documentaries offer visual representations of the past that are usually historically accurate and involve thorough historical research. They also provide an interpretation of the past that can be compared with that of written historical accounts and of feature films. Documentaries also often use original footage that allows us to see what the past was ‘really’ like.

However, the use of documentaries also raises many questions that can be shared with students to enhance their understanding of this type of media:

  • Before 1900 there is very little original footage, and pre-nineteenth century photography was not particularly widespread. This means that many visual representations of the past used in documentaries are reconstructed. How do we judge how accurate reconstructed footage is?
  • The use of original footage is dependent on what is available to historians and documentary makers. Does this skew our vision of events in the recent past and how important those events are?
  • Are all documentaries equal? Is Andrew Marr as reliable as David Starkey and vice versa?
  • What is the purpose of the documentary? Does it reflect on the present? Is it political?
  • Is a documentary a primary or a secondary source? How does this affect how useful it is to the historian?