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Cinema as Mass-Media Vehicle – A Major SSHRC Grant for Glendon History Professor Suzanne Langlois


What is the role of movies in shaping opinions, constructing an identity and creating historical consciousness? These questions have engaged Glendon history professor Suzanne Langlois in her research since the beginning of her academic life. Her recently awarded SSHRC grant was great news, enabling her to continue her research, which examines the impact of movies and film strips, produced by the United Nations, on the public’s understanding of historical events in Europe between 1943 and 1950.

Movies were very effective mass-media vehicles during the period just before the Second World War, during the war, and afterwards. With a public hungry for information and entertainment, movies became increasingly popular, proving to be invaluable for spreading propaganda and forming public opinion. At war’s end, the images provided by the movies continued to be powerful in informing and educating the recently liberated populations.

Langlois’ current research project examines how movies functioned as agents of information about the UN’s activities during the period of transition after the war. This was a time when ‘winning the peace’, affirming the UN’s multilateral nature and the plurality of its voices were essential, if it was to be more effective in its activities than the League of Nations, which it replaced in 1945.

Langlois, who is equally at home in English and French and publishes articles in both languages, has narrowed her examination of materials to those produced either directly by or commissioned for the UN. Extensive visual and paper collections are located in the UN archives: documentaries, voice-overs, film strips and other forms, primarily created by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and the Film division of the UN Department of Public Information.

“My doctoral thesis examined the portrayal of the French Resistance in French cinema between 1944 and 1994”, says Langlois. “Given that films have only recently been recognized as primary sources for historical research, it is a medium that can certainly be further explored by historians. I wanted to immerse myself in this study and there is a significant corpus of archival material; the collections of international organizations are open fields for research.” Langlois’ doctoral work culminated in her book published in 2001 by L’Harmattan, under the title “La Résistance dans le cinéma français: 1944-1994”. Her research introduced her to the work of some of the best-known film producers of the period, including that of French documentary filmmaker Jean Benoit-Lévy, who was a pioneer of educational films and a strong believer in the historical and social mission of cinema. He is the link with the new research project having served with the League of Nations during the interwar years and the United Nations in the postwar period.

As far as next steps are concerned in her research project, Langlois is delighted to have been awarded funds for three years, enabling her to do some long-range planning. “I am also going to enlist the help of several graduate students,” she adds, “raising their interest in the subject as well as providing them with training in the concepts and research methodology specific to the use of these sources in historical scholarship.” Langlois is passionate about her subject and eager to continue her work which, since she began in 2000, has already taken her to Quebec, Paris, New York and elsewhere to search through archival material. She warns that there is an urgent need to develop expertise in safeguarding this heritage in film. “In order to be effective, these historic films need to be saved, copied, repaired and disseminated,” says Langlois. “As far as the UN archives are concerned, they are at the preservation stage.” Langlois confirms that the medium has also been used to document and define human rights issues, genocide, racism, issues of the disabled, and others. Hopefully, this material will become more easily available for scholars and the general public.

”There is a great need to reflect further and to understand the implications of these research findings”, she concludes. “We need to be able to separate the historical facts from the techniques used in these films to represent them in ways that supported the producers’ philosophy and mandate. This project documents the history of the UN public education initiatives. There is much more than 3-years’ worth of work on these collections. I intend to continue my research in this field for years to come.”

More about Suzanne Langlois:

Suzanne Langlois holds a B.A. and M.A. from the Université de Montréal, and a Ph.D. from McGill University. She teaches undergraduate history at Glendon, and at the Faculty of Graduate Studies on the Keele campus. Langlois is a specialist in modern European history, with a focus on twentieth-century world conflicts and film history. In addition to her book on the Resistance in French cinema, she has contributed numerous articles and commentaries to learned journals, and several entries to the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film (Ian Aitken, ed., New York and London, Routledge, 2006). She is also a frequent participant in radio interviews on twentieth-century history for community radio stations around the province and for the Société Radio-Canada in Toronto.

Story submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on May 9, 2007