Films and history, peanut butter and jelly

History has its eyes on us, as we  look on it through our own lenses of perception: books, literature, and if we are to look at the Historical Movie Nights at Washburn, films. The history department with the help of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Society, will screen eight historical films this time around, double of what it used to be.

“We used to show a movie a month every semester before this,” said Tom Prasch, chair of the History department.

The screenings started Jan. 23 and will end April 16 in Henderson. Posters will be posted and announcements given before each film is screened.

Prasch has planned to go from showing serious, content-heavy and dense films to finding respite in “Monty Python” and Mel Brooks’ comedic parodies.

“My interest in how films represent history goes back to my graduate-school days, when, probably as a way to postpone actually working on my dissertation, I started writing about films for a local magazine in Bloomington,” Prasch said.

He’s been involved in writing and thinking about film ever since. He edited reviews for the American Historical Review, and he has been editing a bi-annual collection of film reviews for Kansas History since 2001. He has taught a course on Film and History at Washburn as well.

Prasch realizes that films are but one depiction of history and that the medium, owing to the many shortcuts they have to take, doesn’t lend itself to a lot of nuance. According to him, films are usually the gateways to history for so many people.

“Most people learn history through film. Many of the people saw the movie ‘JFK’ than read any of the books about it,” Prasch said.

According to Prasch, it is the task of historians to point out the historical inaccuracies.

Another thing historians can do, for Prasch, is realize that film history is of its own time. Films reflect the culture of their times. They can be, notwithstanding the inaccuracies, a commentary of things transpiring in their zeitgeist.   

In this era, as in any other era, trust and credibility have always been a subject of contention. Now more than ever, when the notion of truth is blurry and unsubstantiated arguments gain traction, understanding the nature of so called objectivity is important if one wants to participate in meaningful, constructive discourse.

Films and the analysis of films can help with imbuing that understanding, if not an extensive one, then at least one that will lead to a deeper exploration of the topic. The deeper exploration will need to be guided, and in this case, Prasch’s historians are perfect for the job.

“Generally, we look for films that speak to historical issues, and usually movies that are not too mainstream, since part of the goal is to broaden the experience of Washburn students, not show them what they already know,” Prasch said. “We do a lot as well with international films, and we’ve regularly screened silent classics, usually one every semester or two.”

Atit Adhikari, senior computer science major, has thought about attending one of the screenings. 

“I like action movies more than I like historical movies, but I am thinking of going to the screenings to see if they generate an interest of history in me,” Adhikari said. 

This semester the films will go along with the Themester’s themes of free speech and expression. There will be discussions after the screening, which Prasch hopes will instill excitement about history in students.