Public History through Documentary Film

A post by Queen’s University Public History intern, John Leonard

John Leonard hard at work for Doubleband!

John Leonard hard at work for Doubleband!

For my Public History internship with Doubleband Films, I have been carrying out the background research on a specific historical period, topic or person that will inform an upcoming documentary. The credits of Doubleband Films include: Brave New World, The Man Who Shot the Great War, Queen Victoria and the Crippled Kaiser and Eoin MacNeill: The Forgotten Man of 1916. In addition to their historical programmes, Doubleband have also produced documentaries of a more sporting nature such as the feature length film Road (2014).

Through my work with Doubleband, I have developed a deeper appreciation of the important role of the media in public history. In his paper, ‘The past on the box: strengths and weaknesses’, Ian Kershaw emphasises how powerful a medium television can be in depicting history, stating that the ‘immediacy of the visual images have a more vivid impact on the viewer than even that of the most majestic of prose passages.’[1] Similarly Tristram Hunt states that ‘television history broadens the understanding of history among millions who would otherwise remain ignorant.’[2] From watching the documentaries that Doubleband Films have produced I have not only broadened my knowledge of certain historical periods and persons, but by engaging with a topic visually I have been better able to understand the significance of past events.

I have always had a keen interest in film and filmmaking. Prior to my internship, I made a feature length documentary titled ‘Inside the Parish of Newtownards and Comber’. I have also filmed concerts for Ards Gateway Club as well as having made a feature length documentary on my 92 year old grandfather’s life story. Since commencing my internship I have learnt about a range of directing styles and camera techniques that I am applying to films I am currently making and will continue to make in the future. These techniques and methods include knowing when to use close ups and wide shots; knowing when to have a piece to camera shot and a voiceover shot as well as understanding the importance of camera movement. It has been invaluable to hear my managers’ explanations for their decision-making about these aspects of film-making. I have also been lucky enough to join my Doubleband colleagues on location, which has given me a chance to familiarise myself with the different types of equipment. The experience of being out on a shoot in combination with my training in filmmaking techniques, has helped me to understand what the intentions of directors can be when they are making an historical documentary; what the is message they want to convey and the methods they use to communicate that history through documentary film.

I have also been able to bring a lot of skills I have acquired from my history degree to my work in Doubleband. For example when I am writing an essay for my course, the research is very specific and the aim is to answer a particular question. Similarly, my research in Doubleband is highly specific and I must retain a tight focus on the particular story that the documentary hopes to communicate to its audience.

Overall my experience at Doubleband has been enjoyable and one that I have found to be extremely beneficial.

[1] Ian Kershaw, ‘The past on the box: strengths and weaknesses’. in D. Cannadine (ed) History and the media (New York, 2004), p. 120.

[2] Tristram Hunt, ‘How does television enhance history?’ in D. Cannadine (ed) History and the media (New York, 2004), p. 98.

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