Guess Who's Coming to the AHA Film Festival?

Robert A. Rosenstone, November 2009

Quick. All of you who know there’s a film festival at the AHA annual meeting every year raise your hands. Hmmm, very few. No wonder. This annual event seems to be one of the better kept secrets in our organization, yet the San Diego meeting will feature the fourth AHA Film Festival, which will include six works designed to complement and expand upon the meeting’s theme, “Oceans, Islands, Continents.” As an added attraction, directors of three of the films will be in attendance to answer questions about their productions.

Films have been shown at the AHA annual meeting off and on for many years, but only recently has this been regularized into a festival and the duty of creating it turned over to a member of the Program Committee (yours truly for the 2010 meeting). Rather than simply screening films as mere diversions for historians, the festival is now fully integrated into the meeting. Each film is to be hosted and introduced by one or more experts in the field who will both introduce the work and oversee a post-screening discussion about its historical and aesthetic dimensions. At the New York meeting, several of these discussions were heated and at least one lasted well over an hour.

The most famous of the six works to be shown in San Diego is the first and no doubt the greatest of all island films, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Screening: Saturday, January 9, 5–7 p.m., in the Randle Ballroom D of the Hyatt. The venue will remain the same for all the films being screened for the AHA film festival), which started out as a collaboration between two of the most distinguished filmmakers of the 1920s, the German, F.W. Murnau, and the American documentarist, Robert J. Flaherty. Completed by Murnau himself, and shot on locations in Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Morea, the film tells the story of a young Pacific island couple falling in love and thereby violating a local taboo, with tragic consequences. Released in 1931 just days after Murnau’s untimely death, it has been called “the apogee of the art of silent film.” Often interpreted as a commentary on Hollywood by two dropouts from the studio system, the film creates a now lost world of the South Seas—in beautiful and powerful images. The screening (the AHA has the film courtesy of Kino International) of Tabu will be hosted by two German scholars who teach a course on island films at the University of Cologne, Massimo Perinelli and Olaf Stieglitz.

Producer and director Annie Goldson (Univ. of Auckland) will be present for the screening of a second film about the Pacific entitled An Island Calling (Friday, January 8, 4:30–6:30 p.m.), which focuses on recent and tragic events in Fiji. The story describes the case of a prominent couple, John Scott and his partner Greg Scrivener, who were murdered in their Suva, Fiji, home on July 1, 2001. Tracing the extraordinary and colorful story of the Scott family, the film investigates the political crises that have marked Fiji’s recent history, the killings and their aftermath, and the complex mix of tribal authority, ethnicity, Christianity, and democracy that currently exists in the postcolonial Pacific. Sharing the stage with Goldson for the discussion will be Vilsoni Hereniko and Tarcicius Kabutaulaka, both of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. The screening of An Island Calling is co-sponsored by the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History.

Broadening our vision from small islands to the larger ones which comprise the Philippines, indeed taking in the Westward Movement on the North American continent and the whole Pacific region, is the first public screening (a world premiere!) of a just-completed Lucasfilm production, Manifest Destiny: To Conquer or Redeem. Directed and produced by Sharon Wood, who will attend the screening (Thursday, January 7, 5:30–7:30 p.m.), the film tells the powerful story of the Spanish-American and U.S.-Philippine Wars in the context of continental expansion and conquest. As part one of Manifest Destiny, which will be a three-part series on U.S. foreign policy, this film tracks the evolving role of “American Exceptionalism” as the United States grew from a rebellious colony into a continental power and began to develop an overseas empire. Utilizing some remarkable historic footage and revisionist approach, it’s a work that guarantees you’ll never again see William McKinley as a kind of innocent victim of circumstances. Hosting the film along with director Wood will be diplomatic historian Mark Bradley (Univ. of Chicago).

The three films mentioned all create linear worlds in which ambiguity is downplayed and the argument or story is made as clear as possible given the available evidence. Two more works in the festival are somewhat experimental in approach; they stress, both visually and historically, the contingent nature of our knowledge, going so far as to raise questions about the extent to which we can ever actually know the past.

Director Jesse Lerner’s Ruins (Saturday, January 9, 11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.) is a kind of hybrid film that consciously blurs the line between fiction and documentary as it deals with the history of pre-Columbian Mexico. Blending together—and sometimes parodying—footage from earlier, traditional anthropological films, it mixes them with staged sequences and serious documentation about a Mexican antiquities forger in order to question not only the traditional reception and understanding of pre-Columbian culture, but also our very assumptions of historical truth as mediated through the camera lens. If this sounds confusing on paper, it is clearer—and even amusing at times—on the screen, and the questions it raises can be answered by director Lerner (Claremont Colleges), who will be in attendance, and host Matthew Restall (Penn State Univ.), editor of the journal, Ethnohistory.

Ararat (Saturday, January 9, 2:30–4:30 p.m.), written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, is a film that tells multiple stories, past and present, as it deals not just with the question of the Armenian genocide, but also with the way the shadow of those events continues to fall across the lives of peoples living far from Armenia and even on other continents many decades later. In the film, we see the enduring aftershocks animating a great artist, an art history professor, a young Canadian of Armenian descent, a screenplay writer, and a filmmaker—who is seen making a film within the film—to explore what the tragic and violent events of the past mean to them. Their ideas and ideals are tested by others who have no connection with Armenia but who yet serve as catalysts for the struggle to come to terms with what happened so long ago. Hosting Ararat and leading the discussion will be Laurence Baron (San Diego State Univ.), whose own books on Holocaust films have well prepared him to deal with the Turkish-Armenian events.

The sixth film of the festival is, as always, the winner of the John O’Connor Film Award. The film that has been selected to receive the award is Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, a co-production of Vital Pictures and the Independent Television Service. Produced by Llewellyn Smith, Vincent Brown and Christine Herbes-Sommers, and Sally Jo Fifer (executive producer for ITVS), the film describes the life and work of Melville J. Herskovits, the pioneering and provocative American anthropologist who studied African cultures and societies. The film will be screened on Friday, January 8, from noon to 2 p.m., and, like all the other films, in the Randle Ballroom D of the Hyatt.

—Robert A. Rosenstone, professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, is a member of the 2010 AHA Program Committee. His most recent book is History on Film/Film on History (2006).