When I’m not at the office or being touristy in DC (or playing touch rugby on the National Mall), I’m staying at a house in Maryland owned by a deputy director of a small museum. The atmosphere of the place is very family like, we all pitch in on cooking and cleaning, and at least once a week we have “family dinners” where we sit around the table and discuss various topics. Naturally, the discussion has often turned to not-for-profit management, board dynamics, and the general politics of running small organizations.
The family dinners are not just confined to the housemates either; friends and former residents often drop by to hang out and be involved in the discussions (and eat some of the tasty food that gets cooked up). One of these friends is heavily involved with National History Day, and after a scintillating discussion about international historical figures, they made the proposition to me that I should be a judge at this year’s competition. After gaining permission from my supervisor to attend and take a day away from the office, I officially became one of the judges of the senior group documentary section.
National History Day
National History Day is a 40 year old annual competition, that involves over half a million students from not just the U.S. but also U.S. schools in foreign countries including South Korea and China. It’s serious business, with students progressing from regional finals to state finals and then to a week of national finals at the University of Maryland. Students can enter in multiple forms; as well as traditional research papers, there are categories for poster exhibits, websites, documentaries, and plays. For the finals alone there are 400 judges, most of whom are historians or history teachers, but interspersed with a few outsiders and polymaths like myself to keep it interesting.
The national finals round itself comprises two stages, heats and finals. In all, nearly 100 senior group documentaries made it to the national finals this year, of which a mere 14 made it to the final round. The groups themselves are formed of teams of up to 5 students between grades 9 and 12, and each group is required to create a 10 minute film (along with a summary statement and bibliography) on a historical subject articulating the theme of the competition.
This year’s theme was “Rights and Responsibilities” in history. It was a deliberately broad and abstract theme, open to many different interpretations. In our set of entries alone the topics ranged from biopics of key figures in rights movements to expositions of periods in history to chronologies of laws and institutions that enshrine the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
On the day itself, we all turned up bright and early to be assigned our teams, our films and to go over the feedback process and how critical it was to provide positive, constructive criticism (after all, we want to encourage the students to continue pursuing the study of history). I was in a team of 3 judges; my team included a history teacher and museum curator, making me the token non-historian in the group.
After that, it was off to a classroom at the University of Maryland to spend the day judging the entries. Each team of judges had 14 films, and 20 minutes assigned to judge each. We had 5 minutes for setup and to read over the summary statements and (often extensive) bibliographies that incorporated primary and secondary resources, 10 minutes to watch the film itself and make notes, then 5 minutes at the end to interview the students about the subject matter and the documentary making process.
It has to be said that not only were the students naturally proud of their work, but they were exceptionally intelligent and mature in the way that they approached the competition and the subject matter. It was incredibly positive to see how dedicated they were to their work. The level of production quality of the documentaries was also very high. When I was in high school we still shot films on VHS or film and editing was a painstaking process. Many of the films we saw approached professional levels of production, it was very impressive.
What also impressed was how well researched the documentaries were. All the students went to great lengths to find resources for their film, and some went as far as conducting their own primary research, interviewing people involved in historically significant events.
In the end, it was hard to come up with a final ranking; each team brought something special and interesting to the table, and all contained positive aspects. But only two could progress to the final round, and the possibility of winning the national title (and $5000 prize money).
The Role of the Arts in the Service of History
Even though I consider myself reasonably versed in history, next to the historian judges I was clearly the “arts” guy. So what role does the arts have in the process of recording and conveying history? It comes down to creating compelling stories. All through our evolution, history has been conveyed through the use of dramatic storytelling to engage an audience and convey an idea, be it the Iliad of Homer, the Bayeux Tapestry, or the Dreamtime stories of Indigenous Australians. Oral traditions in particular only survived on their ability to be remembered, generation to generation, and so the art of storytelling emerged, highlighting and distilling those aspects that resonated with the audience. Modern performance, visual art and literature is in may ways the extension of these traditions.
As it is in the historical documentary. The challenge of the documentary maker is twofold. Firstly, they must present the story that they want to tell (whether that’s biased towards a particular interpretation of history is another topic). Secondly, they must take that story and convey it effectively to an audience so as to achieve a desired result (understanding of the topic, provocation to action, a changed viewpoint).
The documentary medium fuses together both the visual, the linguistic and the aural, and all must work in harmony in order to meet this twofold challenge. Whilst my colleagues focused their questions on how the students arrived at the choice of topic, I asked about the choices of music, the use of particular visual techniques and editing styles, and the creative process of rendering the topic on screen.
What impressed me most was the answers. Clearly the students had thought not only about their topic but also how best to present it. More than one team described the process of wrangling with a particular musical selection to fit the emotional content of the visuals, and the teams all strove to present a consistent visual theme within their entries.
At the end of it all, we retired to a room to write up our feedback, and to rank the groups. All of the films we saw brought something to the table in terms of insight, research and creativity. It was clear to me that National History Day really drives students to build skills not only in research and critical thinking, but also in creating and conveying ideas to audiences. It was a real honor to have been involved.