Historical films create our view of history


As you watch the Oscars on Sunday, it’s important to remember that Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t actually Abraham Lincoln.

Several historical films are in the running for the Golden Statue this year. While such films can be powerful educational tools, they also run the risk of becoming the real story for many viewers, experts say.

“People learn the right material in movies really, really well,” said Sharda Umanath, a psychology researcher at Duke University who has studied student learning in historical films. “But the problem is, they also learn everything that’s wrong in a movie.”

Artistic license

This year, the Oscars are full of nominees who recreate historical events, some with more precision than others.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin said in a statement that representations in “Zero Dark Thirty” involving American torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden were “grossly inaccurate and misleading.” . The film has also been criticized for turning numerous intelligence operatives into a composite character, Maya. [Medieval Torture’s 10 Biggest Myths]

Other critics have criticized “Lincoln” for downplaying the role of African Americans in the abolition of slavery. And the candidate for the foreign film “No”, who used numerous archival footage to recreate the 1988 Chilean referendum to impeach dictator Augusto Pinochet, has been accused of attributing the success of a ten-year effort from activists and citizens to the genius of a lone advertising ace.

Lies become truth

These inaccuracies may be necessary to make the stories more compelling, but they can cause problems for viewers who think the movies depict historical facts. The adage that a repeated lie becomes truth holds up, according to a classic 1977 study published in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. People repeatedly presented with lies over several weeks were more likely to believe they were true.

It can happen even if people know the truth. David Neil Rapp, a cognitive psychologist at Northwestern University, found that when people tell people stories that include facts they know to be wrong, such as “the capital of Illinois is Chicago”, they will use this poor knowledge in a quiz given later.

For thorny issues like the depictions of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” or the composite character in the movie Maya (a CIA officer), this can be particularly problematic, Rapp told LiveScience.

“When people think about problems, they rely on whatever knowledge they have,” including things they’ve seen in movies, history books, the news, or even “The Daily Show.” , said Rapp. “It all gets mixed up in your head, it’s like a blender.”

People find it difficult to remember where they got the information from, which makes it difficult to separate fiction from reality.

Particularly convincing films

Films are particularly powerful tools for creating lifelike prints, said Umanath of Duke University.

In a study last year, the Umanath team found that when students see clips from films like the war drama “Glory” or the period play “Amadeus”, they tend to remember of the Hollywood version, even though they already know the real story. And when asked to spot the flaws, most students only notice about 35% of them.

While historians are not fooled by inaccuracies, most viewers will unwittingly absorb incorrect information.

Yet Umanath’s research has shown that viewers can “get vaccinated” against false beliefs by immediately remembering inaccuracies after the fact.

Paying intense attention to sources of information and constantly remembering this fact can also help.

“When I see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ I’m supposed, as I learn this information, somehow remind myself, ‘I’m watching a movie, it’s a movie,'” said Rapp.

Unfortunately, this is no fun.

“Why would I do that? It would get me out of the movie,” he added.

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