Filmmaker presents alternate history in ‘Confederate States’

Regina Cassell

On Friday, Jan. 27, viewers received a peek into what the United States would be like if the Confederate side had won the war, rather than the Union.

The film was “C.S.A: The Confederate States of America” and it was shown in conjunction with the observance of Kansas Day.

Kevin Willmott, the director of the film and a professor of film and theater at the University of Kansas, was on hand after the screening to answer questions from the audience. Tom Prasch, chair of the history department, also gave a short commentary at the end of the film.

The film, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, was presented as a television movie made by British documentary filmmakers. It illustrated the actual counter-history in the “movie” and was also spotted with commercials throughout.

The commercials were for goods that were linked to the racist attitude of some Confederates and also for goods that would help the modern slave-owner. These commercials made most of the audience laugh, but many audience members and the director himself discussed how uncomfortable and absurd these mocked situations could be. Though these products seemed absurd at the time, some of the products turned out to be real, as the director showed at the end of the film.

“I don’t make fun of slavery-the absurdity comes from our lives as Americans,” said Willmott.

The movie itself was a seemingly straightforward take on the history of the Confederate States of America, from post-Civil War to the late 20th century. It included such events as ousted president of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, captured and exiled to Canada where he lived until 1905. The North, instead of the South, had to be reconstructed, and in World War II, the Confederacy supported Hitler’s Aryan ideas. Slavery was also introduced into the mainstream life of Americans. This caused a great deal of tension in the movie.

“I think in this case, one of the things I really like is that there is no doubt that this isn’t real history, but there is a lot of real history packed into this film,” said Prasch. “Shock, awe and outrage – I think these can be useful historical tools. They make us think about things that are uncomfortable and race relations are uncomfortable.”

After the film, Prasch’s commentary included discussing the validity of counter-histories and “mockumentaries.” However, he also discussed D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” as being counter-factual, but not as readily discussed.

Prasch said that there were two justifications for counter-histories, its plausibility and its usefulness. He believed that C.S.A did both-the North could have lost the war and counter history is used to illuminate actual history.

“Race remains an issue that has not been dealt with in American history,” said Prasch.

According to Willmott, the reaction to the film has been positive, from general audience members and historians alike. Even though the film discusses the reign of the Confederacy, “the movie isn’t about the South, it’s about America,” said Willmott.

In the question and answer period, the director discussed that even though areas like Lawrence played an important role in abolition, they were still segregated.

He also presented the idea that the United States is still deciding if the country should be the C.S.A or the U.S.A because the nation is still dealing with discrimination, although it might not always be racially related.

“[My inspiration] came from several different things,” said Willmott. “Confederate flags everywhere on people’s cars, my experience in Hollywood-they weren’t interested in slavery, and most people don’t know much about historical events. I wanted to get that information to people.”

“CSA: The Confederate States of America” opens in New York, N.Y. on Feb. 15 and a gradual release across the country will follow.