Unspeakable Histories

Film and the Experience of Catastrophe

William Guynn

Columbia University Press

Unspeakable Histories

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Pub Date: September 2016

ISBN: 9780231177979

272 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $30.00£24.95

Pub Date: September 2016

ISBN: 9780231177962

272 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $90.00£74.95

Pub Date: September 2016

ISBN: 9780231541961

272 Pages

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List Price: $29.99£24.95

Unspeakable Histories

Film and the Experience of Catastrophe

William Guynn

Columbia University Press

In Unspeakable Histories, William Guynn focuses on the sensation of encountering past events through film. Film is capable, he argues, of triggering moments of heightened awareness in which the barrier between the past and the present can fall and the reality of the past we thought lost can be momentarily rediscovered in its material being. In his readings of seven exceptional works depicting twentieth century atrocities, Guynn explores the emotional resonance that still adheres to traumatic historical events.

Guynn considers dimensions of experience that historiography leaves untouched. Yaël Hersonski's A Film Unfinished (2010) deconstructs scenes from the Nazi propaganda film Das Ghetto through the testimony of ghetto survivors. Andrzej Wajda's Katyn (2007) revivifies the murder of the Polish officer corps (in which Wajda's father perished) by Stalin's security forces during the Second World War. Andrei Konchalovsky's Siberiade (1979) reimagines the turbulent history of the Soviet Union from the perspective of an isolated Siberian village. Larissa Shepitko's The Ascent (1977) evokes the existential drama Soviet partisans faced during the Nazi occupation. Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light (2011) examines the vestiges of human experience, including the scattered remains of Pinochet's victims, alive in the aridity of the Atacama Desert. Rithy Panh's S-21 (2003) reawakens events of the Cambodian genocide through dramatic confrontation with some of its executioners, and Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012) films the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide as they restage scenes of killings and torture. Inspired by the work of Walter Benjamin, Frank Ankersmit, Joseph Mali, and Simon Schama, Guynn argues that the film medium, more immediate than language, is capable of restoring the affective dimension of historical experience, rooted in the deepest reaches of our minds.
Guynn's interpretive readings are insightful and downright brilliant. He is just the scholar to write this book, arguing for a kind of history that is an art rather than a social science, providing us with examples of moments in films during which the spectator can actually be made to confront the emotional impact of the past. Robert A. Rosenstone, author of History on Film/Film on History
Unspeakable Histories decisively advances the state of the discipline in historical film studies. Film is shown to be a particularly subtle and challenging medium for articulating the historical traumas of the twentieth century. The writing is nuanced, vivid, and at times, passionate. Robert Burgoyne, author of The Hollywood Historical Film
Through a close analysis of movies dealing with catastrophes, this book proposes a new theoretical approach: to study how film, under certain conditions at some moments (through intense flashes), can lead us to experience the past as a direct phenomenological perception and how it can change our understanding of history. Provocative, but also clear and didactical. A significant contribution to the relations between film and history. Roger Odin, Professor of Sciences of Information and Communication, University of Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle.
An eloquent meditation on cinema's capacity to put us in touch, in every sense of the word, with the presence of the past. Guynn's study makes a sustained argument for the place of affect, sensation, experience, and myth in our historical imagination. Debarati Sanyal, author of Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance
In this thought-provoking book, Guynn argues for the power of historical films about catastrophic events of the twentieth century to suspend, albeit fleetingly, the distance between present and past, enabling viewers to grasp a fragment of that past. At once attuned to the affective dimension of spectatorship and the medium's power to reanimate traces of the historical past, this book argues for the crucial role of film in understanding historical disasters. Alison Landsberg, author of Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture
Guynn does a superb job of examining these often-harrowing works. CHOICE
Introduction: Making Experience Speak
1. Yaël Hersonski's A Film Unfinished
2. Andrzej Wajda's Katyn
3. Andrei Konchalovsky's Siberiade
4. Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent
5. Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light
6. Rithy Panh's S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
7. Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing
Epilogue
Notes
Bibliography
Index

About the Author

William Guynn is professor emeritus of art (cinema) at Sonoma State University. He is the author of Writing History in Film (2006) and the editor of The Routledge Companion to Film History (2010).