First as Tragedy, Then as Television Series: Teaching the Presentation of History in A French Village
Teaching the Presentation of History in A French Village
Americans and Europeans increasingly look to the television drama series for their historical education, whether about Chernobyl or the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. We have long shown documentaries to students and fact-checked docudramas and dramatic films set in the past, but the television drama series offers new opportunities and challenges. The extended viewing time and the sustained involvement the audience has with a television drama series distinguishes it from documentaries, docudramas, and dramatic films. While there is an extensive literature on the presentation of history in film, much less scholarly analysis exists on the television drama series and how it communicates ideas about the past. The feuilleton quality of episodes and hiatus between them (unless binge-watched on a streaming service) leaves viewers to think through the narrative of the series itself as they wait for the next episode. Edgar Reitz’s Heimat: A Chronicle (1984) presented continuity and change in a twentieth-century German village over several generations, but Frédéric Krivine and his team’s A French Village (2009-2017) has a different ambition: to permit viewers to interpret a particular historical event—the German occupation of France during World War II—in ways they had not before. Can a television series present the complexities of this history and the issues it raises? Can it convey these debates to a large audience? What impact does this form of presentation have on viewers’ understanding of the past? A diverse group of first-year students addresses these questions in a seminar I teach on A French Village. Students learn about the occupation of France during the Second World War, and they study postwar debates about its history and memory. However, the primary goal of the course is to develop students’ abilities to analyze the presentation of history outside of books or documentary films by examining a work in a genre that most of them engage with more often and perhaps more deeply, the television drama series. Students ask when imagination could (or could not) enable an audience to see what happened in the past in revealing new ways.
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