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USES Seminar: What is History on Film? The Case of Italian Cinema, 1911-2010

​Uses of the Past invites you to this seminar with Guest Professor Alan O'Leary (Leeds) who will present his plans for a four-year six-person research project, currently under consideration for major funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The​ seminar will present the rationale, methodology and design of Professor O'Leary's project, concerning a large-scale enquiry into cinema as a particularly potent and disputed conveyor of the past, as well as invite discussion on how the project may be strengthened for further funding bids (ERC) if the current bid is unsuccessful. In that sense, the seminar may be of interest both for its interlinking of history and cinema as well for those who are in the process of preparing their own funding applications.

2019.05.20 | Tanja Gotthardsen

Date Mon 03 Jun
Time 15:00 16:30
Location building 1461 room 616

What is History on Film? The Case of Italian Cinema, 1911-2010 

This project is designed to grasp the variety and specificity of Italian cinema’s engagement with the past over the course of its own development and history. Cinema is a key but controversial means of access to the past, often more influential than written history, and the past has been a constant preoccupation of Italian cinema. Historical films regularly generate national debate within Italy, they represent Italy abroad, and they are privileged in academic criticism. Likewise, in film studies more broadly, the body of scholarship on cinema and history is important and large, and as old as cinema itself. But both sets of scholarship employ a set of prescriptive assumptions about the ‘proper’ character of historical cinema, tending to assume that only a small number of films ‘do history’ in the appropriate way. In the scholarship on Italian cinema, this has meant a focus on certain preferred modes and on a limited corpus of films perceived to be important and properly historical. 

Our project is motivated by the recognition of the centrality of the past in Italian cinema and by the assessment that scholarly understanding of this fact has been too narrow, compounding within itself a prescriptive sense of what history is and what it means. We will radically expand the number and type of films that enter the analysis and use this expansion to explode definitions of ‘historical film’ while making the understanding of ‘history’ a goal of the project rather than a prescriptive point of departure. We will employ a mix of quantitative, qualitative and archival methods in different phases of the project. A key innovation is that every film from a sample ten years (every 11th year between 1911, when longer 'features' begin to be made, and 2010) will be considered — using quantitative ‘distant reading’ methods — in terms of how each establishes a relationship with the past. This first phase will generate novel corpora to be closely analysed in subsequent phases, supported by the construction of a digital archive of clips to be analysed across the project team. 

Our approach is designed to: evade any prescriptive understanding of historical cinema, and so reconceptualize the relationship between cinema and history in Italy; advance knowledge of how history itself is accessed, processed and employed in cultural production as such. We will identify the modes, genres and formal devices in and through which Italian cinema has established a relationship to the past and we will clarify how these have evolved over time. We will discern the cultural and institutional constraints that made certain stories about the past ‘thinkable and tellable’ and certain approaches viable at given moments, and we will trace how Italian cinema’s mediation of history has been characterized in, and influenced by, critical and public discourse. 

The rationale, ambitions and approach of the project have been defined through a series of workshops and the publication of several programmatic articles. The intersecting strands of research will bring a diverse and international research team together, ranging from early career to senior professor, with expertise in Italian cinema, culture and history. 

Because it will provide a new model of how a relationship with the past is established in cinema, our project will benefit a range of academic beneficiaries in disciplines from Italian studies to film studies and history. The project will use the study of the Italian case to challenge canonical accounts of film and history, and take the study of film and history beyond its ‘perpetual embryonic state’ (Burgoyne 2007) by modelling an analytical approach to be adapted and applied in other national and transnational contexts. Our project will provide novel creative opportunities for arts practice, will inspire film festival programming, and will develop learning and teaching resources for schools, film clubs and societies and further education.