Examining the role of cinema in shaping public opinion

Glendon History professor Suzanne Langlois has received a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada grant to further her long-time research interest in the way in which the cinema has been used in shaping public opinion, constructing national identity and creating a historical consciousness.

A specialist in modern European history, with a focus on twentieth-century world conflicts and film history, Langlois (left) will use the three-year grant to investigate how movies and film strips produced or commissioned by the United Nations (UN) functioned to disseminate information about the UN’s activities after the Second World War. As part of this research project, she will examine documentaries, voice-overs, film strips and other material found in UN archives.

“Given that films have only recently been recognized as primary source materials for historical research, it is a medium that can certainly be further explored by historians…there is a significant corpus of archival material; the collections of international organizations are open fields for research,” she says.

The archival materials that Langlois will be studying were created primarily by UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the film division of the UN Department of Public Information in the transitional post-Second World War period.

At that time, it was important for the UN to be seen as a multilateral body that represented a plurality of voices if it was to be more effective than the League of Nations, the organization it replaced in 1945. To shape public opinion, the UN used the cinema, which had become a popular mass-media vehicle before, during and after the war, when the public was hungry for information and entertainment.

The role of the cinema as a mass-media vehicle has been a research interest of Langlois since the beginning of her academic career. Her doctoral thesis examined the portrayal of the French Resistance in French cinema between 1944 and 1994 and culminated in her book La Résistance dans le cinéma français: 1944-1994, published in 2001 by L’Harmattan.

Right: Langlois’ book on portrayal of the French Resistance in cinema between 1944 and 1994

Her research in this area introduced Langlois to the work of some of the best-known film producers of the period betweem 1943 and 1950, 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. His work provided the impetus for Langlois’ new research project as he served with the League of Nations during the interwar years and the United Nations in the postwar period.

Since 2000, Langlois, who is equally fluent in English and French and publishes articles in both languages, has done research in archives in Quebec, Paris, New York and elsewhere.

Through her work she has noted that there is an urgent need to develop expertise in safeguarding film archives. “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,” she says.

The medium has also been used to document and define human rights issues, genocide, racism, issues of the disabled, and others, says Langlois. She hopes that 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 says. “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.”

Her current research project, which documents the history of the UN’s public-education initiative, will be just one step towards this end, says Langlois. “There is much more than three years’ worth of work on these collections. I intend to continue my research in this field for years to come,” she says.

This story was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.