9 — How history can be presented in film
In this sequence the students will examine how history can be presented in film by viewing a documentary-style text from 50 years ago and a contemporary historical narrative text, and identifying the design features that the producers of these texts have used to position the viewers.
In this sequence the students will be viewing a clip about the First Fleet settlers at Sydney Cove from the 1963 documentary series The Land that Waited. They will also be viewing a a clip from a 2004 film about the First Fleet convict Mary Bryant (the Australian Dictionary of Biography online provides further information about Mary Bryant). Both of these clips are held at the National Film Archive Australia (NFAA), which has over 1000 film clips with associated curator and teacher notes, on a huge variety of subjects. You may want to also view a short excerpt from the 1927 silent film For the Term of His Natural Life (also held at the NFAA) with the students, to view a text from another time. Discuss the features used, particularly the music, to enhance meaning for the viewer. Note that there are three short excerpts from the film on the NFAA website, but all are rated PG so you may need to obtain parental permission for this.
Activity 1: Looking at a documentary from the 1960s
View Clip 1 from the 1963 documentary series The Land that Waited and use the Semiotic systems worksheet to jointly construct the semiotic systems at work in this text. What sort of text do the students think this is (imaginative, informative, persuasive or a combination)? Why?
The text is made from a collection of still images from convict artists’ works from the early days of the colony. Draw attention to the audio features of this text such as music and sound effects. Identify the visual effects that have been used, including panning and the use of framing. This can be used to compare to contemporary texts. The curator’s notes and educational notes on the website discuss the techniques used to create the point of view of the narration. Display the transcript of the narration to discuss the language of the 1960s and the language choices that position the reader, such as noun groups (hopeless convicts, reluctant soldiery, opportunist officers, kindred eyes, nostalgic settlers) and verbs (gaze, adore). ACELA1491, ACELA1493, ACELY1690
Transcript from The Land That Waited (1963), clip 1 (1:59 mins)
When they sailed into Sydney Cove, the hopeless convicts, the reluctant soldiery and the opportunist officers all looked with kindred eyes on the landscape before them, vast, seemingly endless.
Holding onto the very edges of sanity they said to themselves the strange dry things we see are not real, for this place is England, we ourselves are England and this land we will form in our own image.
Slowly the tents and the makeshift huts spread over the dry undulations above the harbour; the embryo of Sydney took shape.
The small Georgian houses sprang up, the feeble little Tank Stream flowed down to Sydney Cove as the newcomers began to make their Antipodean England amongst the rocks and sun-baked earth of Sydney harbour.
When a small potted primrose was shipped out from home, the nostalgic settlers stormed the wharf shed just to gaze at and adore their little bit of England.
What point of view is the narrator suggesting? (The colonists did not like the landscape of Sydney Cove and wanted to create a landscape in the image of England.)
What position has the narrator taken towards the colonists? (The convicts were hopeless, the soldiers were reluctant to carry out their duties and the officers were looking for ways to make their lives easier.)
What techniques other than language have been used to support this? (Music; images of the cottage-type gardens; close-up framing of people looking longingly at their ‘little bit of England’: the primrose plant and close-ups of faces appearing to be thinking of home.) ACELY1686, ACELA1496, ACHASSK085, ACHASSI077, ACHASSI082
Activity 2: Looking at a contemporary text
View Clip 1 from the from the 2004 dramatisation The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant. Curator notes about this mini-series tell us, ‘Mary Bryant sets up a battle between classes, between convicts and their keepers, underdogs and overlords, with sympathies firmly on the convicts’ side’. How does the filmmaker achieve this?
Play the first 1:10 minutes of the clip, up until the pork is served (as awkward dialogue follows) and have the students view it without trying to take notes. This clip allows the students to see the way the class roles are clearly defined. What sort of text do the students think this is (imaginative, informative or persuasive)? Why?
Break the students into small groups and have them use the Semiotic systems worksheet to identify the features that the filmmaker has used. Replay the clip and ask them this time to just concentrate on the convict characters. How are they portrayed and what has the filmmaker used to emphasise this? View the transcript for the convict parts. Have the students discuss these in their groups and complete the Semiotic systems worksheet.
Replay the clip once more, this time concentrating on the officers. What contrasts can the students see? They record their findings on the worksheet and these can be shared with the class. It may be necessary to explicitly teach some concepts related to the clip, such as ‘reform’ and ‘criminal classes’. The students should also consider whether some convicts would be considered criminals by today’s standards. ACELA1496, ACELA1493, ACELT1603, ACELY1690, ACHASSK085, ACHASSI077, ACHASSI082
Transcript of the first 1:10 minutes of the clip from The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2004)
Governor Arthur Phillip: We are not just solving the problem of overcrowded prisons, we are expanding empire ahead of the Dutch and the French.
(Reverend pours his wine down to the hull where the convicts are; they catch it and lick it off their hands.)
Elizabeth (convict): Oh … Do you know who they are entertaining up there? Lord Muck himself.
First male convict: Captain Arthur Phillip, he’s to be Governor of the Colony.
Second male convict: A good man? (Convict vomits.)
Governor Arthur Phillip: Lieutenant Clarke? Perhaps you would like to share your thoughts on our prospects?
Lieutenant Clarke: Yes sir. I was just thinking of the question of the reform of our human cargo.
Governor Arthur Phillip: Yes, reform; well there should always be hope, always hope.
Reverend Johnson: But not with regard to the criminal classes; experience tells us there should be very little of it.
Governor Arthur Phillip: Yes I think turning wretches into workhorses is as much as we can expect.
Reverend Johnson: I do what I can! I did try reading to the women … excuse me but the stench down there it’s enough to floor an ox.
Governor Arthur Phillip: Ah the pig ... (Other guests murmur ‘wonderful’.)
Elizabeth: Oh. Pork!