Thursday, June 19, 2003

Historical movies 

One of my summer activities is to catch up on the movies I miss during the year, both due to business and due to the crappy selection of films by the one guy that owns all the screens in town. (Dude, if you're reading this, I've got my idea for an art house theater, and I've got a bull's eye painted on your Bruce Willis-loving ass.) I get enough grief from Mrs. B over my frequent sojourns to the Twins -- seeing indie films in the Twin Cities is out of the question. Instead, I use Netflix to get much of what I want. Anyway...

Last night I watched Rabbit-Proof Fence, which recently shared honors for Best Libertarian Film with Minority Report (the only of three movies discussed here to come to St. Cloud ... grrr). Rabbit Proof Fence is about three half-caste Aboriginal girls who are forcibly removed by the UK provincial government to be re-educated to be white. They escape their captors and follow a 1200-mile-long fence to keep rabbits in the desert and out of the agricultural areas (hence the movie title) to re-unite with their family.

I liked the film greatly, but on the second viewing I was struck with the thought, "How do we know that the antagonist in this character is truthfully portrayed?" Maybe it was because it was Kenneth Branagh, whose Shakespearean work I love, that made me think that. I thought I would come in this morning and fish around for an article about how Phillip Noyce researched this movie. Google burped up this piece on several of these recent films, including Ararat, a movie that is of course near and dear to my heart. Ararat's theme is that the filming of a documentary about the Armenian genocide changes those who had views of the genocide drilled into them from their youth.

Aboriginal history is a heated topic in Australia, as Tim Blair noted last year, and Andrew Bolt wrote a column in The Sun savaging the movie, with rebuttals and rejoinders abounding. (I can't seem to locate the reply that I noted Noyce was to have written to Bolt's editorials. He apparently gave a sarcastic nod to Bolt for free publicity when RPF won the AFI award.)

So this morning I also make the rounds of my usual blogs and find Critical Mass talking about almost exactly the same thing.

[Historian Keith] Windschuttle went on to summarize how the story of genocide that is so central to Australian history (not to mention national identity) is in no small part the fabrication of historians who play fast and loose with facts, misquoting as needed and even making up statistics when necessary. He goes on to list just a few of the glaring errors he found when he checked the major historical work on the subject against the sources they cite.
Calling this another Bellesilles, Erin notes,
The genocidal narrative of Australian history appealed to people's unresolved guilt about the colonization of that continent, blaming settlers for the deliberate extinction of the aborigines and in the process helping to fortify a reparative agenda in the present. Windschuttle argues that the reality is far more complex and far less satisfying because it does not provide a clear, politically correct focal point for blame: "True, the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines did die out in the 19th century," he writes. "But this was almost entirely a consequence of two factors: the long isolation that had left them vulnerable to introduced diseases, especially influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis; and the fact that they traded and prostituted their women to such an extent that they lost the ability to reproduce themselves."
I wrote about "four fingered objectivity" with a historian here a few weeks ago, and I got this most interesting answer (this was a private email, and I will protect the source, but the quote is too good to pass up.)
One of the key paradoxes historians face is that the past is gone and inaccessible to us. We can examine surviving evidence from the past, but we cannot examine the past itself. Even the memories of surviving witnesses are flawed. Thus the pursuit of accuracy in the writing of history is an act of faith. I cannot achieve the Truth about the past, but I seek to approach it. Who knows the Truth? My answer is God.

The alternative is to say that there is no difference between writing history and writing historical fiction. Or at least I can't see any other choice.

So let's face it: Without the diaries of the Kenneth Branagh character, we've really no idea what A. O. Neville said in relation to the girls in Rabbit Proof Fence, and we're left to wonder why those words and ideas come out of Branagh's mouth. I'm sympathetic to the movie because I'm predisposed to distrust government, and I find the arrogance of governments thinking they can raise children better than families can entirely believable. Buy the premise, buy the bit. But it does the cause of liberty no good -- and I doubt we'll find Noyce to be a libertarian -- to play fast and loose between history and drama.