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Film and history

Personal footage

Personal footage by amateur operators, including home movies and professionally filmed personal accounts of events, provide an enormously valuable resource for students and teachers of history. These first-hand accounts of events offer the chance to interact in an engaging manner with how real people experience history, and home movies offer unparalleled insights into fashions and tastes, and how ordinary people live and enjoy themselves.

There are, of course, also difficulties raised through the use of personal footage.

  • How reliable are people’s opinions? Especially in retrospect – can we trust people’s memories?

  • There is a huge potential for bias, especially when considering people’s views on controversial events. How does this affect how useful personal accounts are as historical sources?

  • How representative are home movies of everyday lives? How many people in the 1960s owned a video camera? How many people recorded ordinary life compared to special occasions? Can this alter our view of how people lived? Does this make home movies more or less useful to the historian?

  • What was the purpose of people recording home movies?

  • Do home movies show only significant moments? What is a significant moment?

Increasing use of footage of this kind reflects the changing nature of history as a discipline, in a digital and visual age. It is worth exploring with your students changes in the ways in which we ‘do’ history. How will the sudden increase in personal recording devices, mobile phones and portable digital video cameras, affect how future historians study today? Will the explosion of personal, corporate and government video and film on websites like YouTube and Facebook make the future historian’s job easier or more difficult?