British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Screening European Heritage

Over the last two decades, Higson’s original definition of the term has been repeatedly challenged, redefined and stretched almost to breaking point. Moreover, it is increasingly noted that such films were not, and are not, unique to British cinema. Indeed, more recently, heritage film has been identified as a dynamic global film genre. Clearly film studies has largely moved on from the original debate that Higson initiated, much of which ultimately became somewhat semantic. However, its core concern, namely what do we mean by ‘heritage’ and how might this be communicated, instrumentalised or challenged by cinema, remains a key concern. If we stick closely to Higson’s original aesthetic definition of the concept, but accept that heritage cinema is a global phenomenon, such films are produced and consumed within very different and distinct social and political contexts, all of which inflect the specific concept of heritage they seek to communicate. A country house draped in a swastika such as we see in Dennis Gansel’s 2004 film Napola (Before the fall) immediately creates a very different affective relationship with the spectator to a shot of a similar building in a British heritage drama. Downton Abbey, this clearly isn’t. The disparate modes of engagement with the past we see across European heritage films are always invariably inflected by the preoccupations of the present, evoking conflicting emotions amongst those that make and consume such films, emotions driven variously by nostalgia, mourning, or more nationalist, even jingoistic strategies .

Screening European Heritage is an AHRC Care for the Future project run by the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds and B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies and was set up to explore the ways in which heritage films across Europe choose to present the continent’s history. In particular, we are interested in how film interacts with the wider heritage sector, both in terms of film production and in terms of the many and complex ways in which heritage films either challenge or support the agenda of the heritage sites they present on screen, asking us to reflect upon who ‘owns’ the rights to historical representation. Thus, the project has focussed on a number of interrelated questions:

  1. What role does European, National and Regional policy play in the production of heritage film? How have production companies in a variety of countries across Europe negotiated the film funding landscape and how has this impacted upon the projects chosen for development?
  2. How do heritage films extend, or delimit, the possibilities of historical representation? How do filmmakers perceive national ‘heritage’ on screens across Europe and how does this reflect the changing politics of national identity formation?
  3. How are European heritage films consumed across and beyond Europe? Who are their audience and what are the mechanisms of their consumption? In particular this question explores the role of digital transmission and consumption of heritage films. Along with traditional audience analysis, it looks at the ways in which films are consumed via digital social media, from Youtube mashups to interactive fan sites, a form of reception that often feeds back into the broader media response to such work.
  4. How do heritage films interact with the wider heritage sector? How do the imperatives of the tourist industry impact upon the aesthetics of these films and how has the film industry actively worked with regional, national and transnational tourist boards to enhance ‘film-induced tourism’?

Over the last year, the project team have been exploring these questions through discussions with film scholars and industry professionals. The ultimate aim of the project was to provide a scoping study for a wider investigation. With this in mind, we focussed largely on heritage films produced in the UK, the Basque Country, Denmark and Germany, all of which have very different film cultures and, most importantly, relationships with the past.

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