From the 121st Annual Meeting column of the March 2007 Perspectives

The AHA's First Film Festival

Chris Hale, March 2007

Illuminating the routine of the 121st annual meeting in Atlanta, was the AHA's first (and hopefully annual) film festival. Organized by Vanessa Schwartz (Univ. of Southern California) and the AHA's Mériam Belli, and Debbie Ann Doyle, and sponsored in part by the University of Iowa, the film festival was a two-day event, screening past winners of the AHA's John E. O'Connor Film Prize and a couple of newly released films. The festival was generally viewed as another welcome addition to the many recent changes that are transforming the traditional annual meeting format.

The film festival began on the morning of Friday, January 5, and concluded on the evening of Saturday, January 6. It was a relatively informal affair that mixed differing styles of documentary filmmaking with differing historical subjects, and attracted numerous annual meeting attendees throughout the two-day period.

The festival began with a screening of the 2005 winner of the John E. O'Connor Film Award, Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision, directed, produced, and, edited by David Lebrun. A lucid examination of the life of German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), Proteus visually conveyed the clash between science and art that formed Haeckel's unique vision.

Midday on Friday, the festival screened Morning Sun, winner of the 2004 John E. O'Connor Film Award. Morning Sun is an interesting look at China's Cultural Revolution, blending dazzling, never-before-seen color film footage of Maoist propaganda, with contemporary interviews of those who lived through it.

Ending the Friday line-up of the festival was a screening of Stranger with a Camera, written and produced by Elizabeth Barrett of Appalshop Films, who also participated in an informal Q & A session following the screening. Winner of the 2001 John E. O'Connor Film Award, and presented in conjunction with the AHA session, "Documentarians as Historians, Historians as Documentarians, Part 2. Putting History into Documentary: The Making of Stranger with a Camera," the film explored the relationship between documentary filmmakers and the subjects they portray, through an examination of the 1967 murder of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor—examining Lyndon's Johnson's so-called "War on Poverty" in Appalachia—by a local Kentucky man named Hobart Ison. The film powerfully juxtaposed O'Connor's 1967 film footage, with new interviews and reflections of those involved, to explore the issues of class that led to the murder, and how over thirty years later, those issues still remain.

The standing-room-only screening of Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes early on Saturday morning, January 6, proved that one can never underestimate the draw of Nazis on film, even at 9:00 in the morning. Written and directed by Christian Delage, Nuremberg brilliantly compiled the film footage of the Nuremberg trial as shot by John Ford and the Field Photographic Branch of the OSS into a cohesive, narrative structure. Delage also answered audience questions following the screening. The film's recent release also made it a festival favorite.

Immediately following Nuremberg was a screening of A Country Between, part one of the PBS series The War That Made America, written and directed by Eric Strange, who was also on-hand afterwards for an informal Q & A session. Using reenactments and actors portraying and reciting letters of historical figures, A Country Between looked at the burgeoning military consciousness of a young George Washington (embodying the emerging American spirit) during the French and Indian Wars.

Probably the most popular of the festival films was the last to be screened, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. Like Nuremberg, the film's recent theatrical release, mixed with the FBI's announcement in December in which it agreed to make public the final documents pertaining to its surveillance of John Lennon, made The U.S. vs. John Lennon a top attraction in the film festival. The film presented a heartfelt look at John Lennon's solo music career in the early 1970s, his leftist political awakening during that time, and his and wife Yoko Ono's eventual clash with the Nixon Administration. Lighthearted and biting by turns, the film examined the conflict between free thought and conformity during a time of major political discord, and was an enjoyable cap to the festival. Jon Wiener, the historical consultant to the film, was joined by Vanessa Schwartz after the screening for an informal Q & A.

The AHA hopes to continue the film festival for the 122nd Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. (January 3–6, 2008). Any ideas and/or suggestions can be sent to filmfest@historians.org.

—Chris Hale is the production manager for AHA Publications.