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Film and history

Use of sources

Students of history must learn how to read and interpret sources, developing the skills to identify, decode and take a critical approach to the evidence they encounter. In the same way, history students must consider closely the construction process not just of film but also of the history that it represents.

In the twenty-first century, sources are more than just books and pictures. Students need to be able to read and interpret personal footage, newsreel, documentary and film sources, comparing the different approaches each take to their subject matter.

Newsreels and documentaries provide particularly useful subject matter. By asking students to consider how footage is put together, what decisions are made about what to leave in and what to take out, they can reflect on the nature of sources. Are documentaries and newsreels primary or secondary sources? Why? For documentaries, does it make a difference if footage is reconstructed or original?

Are documentaries, newsreels and personal footage more reliable and/or useful than feature films? Why? These sources are also constructions of history – they present a view of the past, usually with a particular purpose. Students can experiment with these genres using the resources provided below. British Pathé has newsreel clips available for download – students can use editing software to use the same images to present different historical perspectives, using different music, voiceovers and text.

Useful sources