The French historian Pierre Sorlin, one of the first experts who explored the common ground between history and cinema, wrote in his book The Film in History: Restaging the Past: “… the subject of our interest is, roughly speaking, the study of the cinema considered as a document of social history that, without neglecting the political or economic base, aims primarily at illuminating the way in which individuals and groups of people understand their own time.” Over the last 130 years, the role of cinema has changed fundamentally, becoming an integral part of cultural history, able to reveal the state of a society with increasing accuracy. Today, with the multiplication of streaming platforms, the possibility of accessing films has been freed from any obstacle, creating a responsibility we have never seen before.
In the 1970s, historians began to include cinema in their research, recognising the inestimable value of what a nation says about itself through its film production. A historical film is first and foremost what the filmmakers thought was important to show us about the past at the time it was made: it approaches the past from the perspective of the present. It is a reinterpretation of a historical vision already established by others; the filmmakers transfer their own view of the events to the screen. One-sided representation is not (necessarily) synonymous with manipulation or falsification: the filmmaker, whether by choice or driven by a prevailing ideology, chooses the historical event or character to construct his or her own narrative. Consequently, it is not only history that influences film, but film also influences history and, above all, the way we think about history.
As a result, film becomes an important component of historical memory. It depends on the filmmaker (and also on the ruling political system) which person or event can enter the cinematic canon and profoundly influence our thinking about the past. The aim of a film may be to shape our perception of history, to guide our thinking – the audience, if it accepts everything without reservation, may take the scenes elaborated by the director as absolute truth. The representation of the past through film is an important complement to the development of historical memory: when it is linked to the past events of a nation, it becomes an integral part of the collective memory. Audiovisual media and narrative together influence the place an event occupies in the shared social memory. Through film, history is taken out of the realm of science and brought closer to the audience. The Italian neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini argued that cinematic representation may be the best way to conceive of history beyond a set of names and dates: it makes the environment, the customs and the characteristics of the past perceptible to us, and perhaps explains how today’s society has formed.
The growing importance of cinema in the construction of Latin America’s historical memory can be observed since the late 1960s, when the concept of the so-called “Third Cinema” was born, according to which the main task of Latin American cinema is to show and analyse the reality and problems of the region. This approach was mainly concerned with the present, but the representation of the past also became an essential element in the formation of identity. Repressed at home by dictatorships, various filmmakers made their films in exile in an attempt to shape the image of their nation, to reflect on the crimes of the dictatorships and, soon, to strengthen the society of the country in order to confront the crimes committed. The most prominent cases are those of Argentina and Chile, where the ghosts of the past haunt the historical memory: the process that began in the 1970s, the open confrontation with the past through cinema, has not slowed down; today, films are still being released, winning awards at international festivals, trying to contribute to the historical memory.
In Europe, the cinematic approach to history started with delay. In European cinema, the French New Wave, Italian neorealism or the cinematic traditions of Central and Eastern Europe determined whether the critical representation of the past could be explicit or symbolic, depending on the political and/or social context of the region. While in Western Europe the treatment of various topics (e.g. Nazism, Fascism, the Second World War) has been present since the 1950s, Central and Eastern Europe did not dare to deal with relevant events of their past until recently. In this region, the approach to historical events is often linked to current political implications, generating debates about forms of representation, bearing in mind that the issue of historical cinema can be directly or indirectly associated with contemporary socio-political issues.
In the field of relations between Europe and Latin America, the above-mentioned aspects can play an interesting and perhaps useful role. Through films, one region can get a complex picture of the other’s society, culture, past and present, as well as an impression of how the features that shape international relations and the current reality of that nation have evolved. At the same time, filmmakers from both regions can learn from their colleagues: the choice between the most objective and the most subjective approaches, the attitude towards political rivals, the identification of the guilty and the innocent (in the context of a dictatorship) through the cinematic language, or the inclusion of national pride and national tragedies in the cinematic and historical canon are just some of the examples that cinema from both regions has recently dealt with, and these tendencies seem to be increasing in the present and the future. For this reason, filmmakers and film policies, in both Europe and Latin America, have an enormous responsibility, as they have been given an unprecedented weight in shaping the way we think about history. One of their fundamental tasks is to document and recreate events, generate debates and contribute to national and universal historical memory through the audiovisual representation of our past.
The research was supported by the ICT and Societal Challenges Competence Centre of the Humanities and Social Sciences Cluster of the Centre of Excellence for Interdisciplinary Research, Development and Innovation of the University of Szeged. The author is a member of the “Diffusion of new technologies in the globalizing world and their social-cultural impacts” research group.