x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Historical dramas can trigger and enlighten our consciousness

Lets use human escapism to our advantage, argues Shelina Janmohamed

Viceroy's House depicts the last days of the British Raj. Courtesy Bend It Films
Viceroy's House depicts the last days of the British Raj. Courtesy Bend It Films

Staying in is the new going out. I confess that on my nights in, I have become addicted to the historical drama genre. I'm not the only one. We are having a bumper crop of films that bring our unknown histories to screen and they are proving hugely popular. They are winning awards and becoming box office hits.

These are the high-quality production dramas that bring to life true stories and events from the past. Who needs fiction when the stories in our histories are so edge-of-the-seat gripping?

Against the backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the Partition, we saw the epic production The Viceroy’s House released.

With the temperature rising on race relations and the civil rights movement in the US, we’ve seen glorious productions like Twelve Years a Slave and The Butler weaving stories about black American history into the experiences of individuals. Films like Suffragette re-examine women’s lives. And amid all these productions are witty dramas like Hidden Figures, the story of the black women who were part of Nasa and the first space and moon explorations. The list is lengthy and important.

Viceroy's House will be screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Viceroy's House will be screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Our love of fiction is easy to explain. It fits in well with the human need for escapism and storytelling. And we particularly love immersive historical fiction, with all those glamorous period clothes and grand emotions.

But bringing real stories to life, some of them huge turning point events, others completely unknown, speaks to the fact that we are living through an era where history is increasingly being contested and shows that how we talk about the past is contentious. To re-examine history is to open a Pandora's box about why the world is how it is today. Re-examining history is powerful and uncomfortable.

When the protesters at Charlottesville came out in supposed defence of the statue of Confederate leader Robert E Lee, what they were really doing was defending their version of history.

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The statues of Confederates were not erected at the end of the American Civil War, but at the turn of the 20th century and in the years just before the emergence of the civil rights movement. These were not memorials of the past, but statements trying to use the veneer of history to literally whitewash political oppression.

The same goes for the way history is narrated on the big screen. Historical drama - which stories are selected, who tells them and how they are told - can reveal, enlighten and trigger our consciousness.

So we must exercise caution in our excitement, being ever mindful that the directors are the author of their own writing of history and come with their own world view. We tend to accept films, especially documentary style ones, as giving us a truth about the world. And many of these historical dramas do offer a truth. But we must be ever cautious that this is not an objective truth but just another point of view.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American mathematicians who played a vital role in Nasa in its early years. Hopper Stone / Twentieth Century Fox
Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American mathematicians who played a vital role in Nasa in its early years. Hopper Stone / Twentieth Century Fox

What makes it onto our screens is, itself, a point of view through which stories should be told. In the English language, we don’t have much about the Middle East and its history. We know almost nothing about South-East Asia. Such stories are almost never told by those whose interests are vested in other regions and other narratives. We still await stories on the silver screen told by Muslim women and their experiences.

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We truly believe the histories of our films. Soft, subtle and engaging, the narratives take hold of us and shape our world view. After all, only a handful of us will leave the screen and dig deeper. Instead, all too often, we accord film and TV a kind of respect for offering us some truth about the world in which we live. And sometimes, even if we know there is a vested point of view, films often become our baseline for understanding the world.

This means that when we stay in to watch a film, we are not passive consumers. We are witnesses to the creation of a new popular history.

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