UP students use film to tackle historical topics ranging from gangsterism and the connection between land and people

The Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria recently hosted a virtual screening of a collection of short films researched, produced, scripted, edited and narrated by the 2020 cohort of history honours students. In a first for the Department, it also hosted the screening of a master’s coursework short film.

The honours short films were the practical component of the module GES 715: World History in World Cinema. The module engages with the theoretical debates on film and history and provides a survey of world historical events, moments and people as these are represented in film.

On completion of the theoretical component of the module, the students are required to research a historical topic of choice, film, storyboard and produce and edit a short film on their chosen topic. The 2020 cohort of students were working under severe constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and could thus not undertake any actual filming or interviews. Instead, they have produced short films using archival and other material in the public domain.

This year’s list of topics for the honours module included a reflexive film on Pretoria Boys High based on the personal photographic archive of former Boys High and current UP history honours student Duncan Lotter. Michaela van Ingen-Kal explored the history of Sasol and its impact on the Vaal Triangle. Masesi Tsotetsi produced a short film on gangsterism on the Cape Flats and the emergence of PAGAD, a community-based anti-drug and gangsterism movement.

The Department also recently hosted the screening of its first MA coursework short film. The short film was researched, scripted and produced by Burger Foster who has completed a coursework MA, for the module MSocSci (History), on the history of the Masha people of Kalkfontein.

Because the coursework also included a short film, Foster attended several classes of the honours module, GES 715: World History in World Cinema, to gain a better insight into film and history, the theoretical debates and visual literacy and criticism.

The film, titled The Biography of Kalkfontein, is a meditation on land and its centrality to the Masha people. It engages with the spiritual and existential connection between land and people and how this connection was impacted by illegal forced removals in the late 1940s. The film also explores the creation of a collective memory of trauma as members of the Masha clan testified in each of their interviews. This collective memory was shaped by a shared experience of removal and loss.

The film also explores the relationship between white and black in the context of apartheid. Central to this relationship between white and black was a piece of land and how ownership was determined. Ultimately, it argues for differing historical narratives shaped by race, positionality and power.