Kim NelsonProfessor Kim Nelson outlines five principles of historical films in her new book on the genre, “Making History Move.”

Film professor explores principles of historical cinema in new book

Historical films, whether features or documentaries, are where most turn for their history, says professor Kim Nelson. As such they carry a lot of weight — so she has come up with five principles to analyze the formulation and effects of historical films.

In her new book Making History Move, Dr. Nelson, a filmmaker and film scholar, explores these principles, which she considers to be critical in the way audiences approach the genre.

“I’m interested in analyzing what’s important in historical films and thinking about how they excel or how they could improve,” she said.

“I started by reading historical philosophy and applying that to films. I wanted to contribute something quite different from what is out there. And despite being an arts person, I am drawn to structure and organization, and I’m interested in arguing based on principles.”

From there, she came up with the following five principles:


Nelson said this comes directly from the philosophy of history and literary theory with the basic idea that histories are always narratives.

“I argue in the book that rather than wringing our hands and saying narrative and stories don’t belong in history — there’s no getting around it,” she said. “Instead, I ask how do we work with the benefits and limitations of narrative?”


Nelson explains that what separates history from fiction is that historical films need to be connected to evidence and facts.

“I look at how historical films reference to their evidence and call for historical films to show their evidence more.”


This principle, Nelson said, explores the idea that it’s useful for the audience to experience a break in the illusion.

“Documentary films do this all the time,” she said. “And a lot of times, historical films mimic documentary aspects, like, for example, putting a date or place at the bottom of the screen or breaking up a linear a linear storyline.

“I describe a whole range of ways that historical films can break the illusion to remind the audience they're watching a film.”


In this chapter, Nelson investigates the importance of the past being the past.

“I think there are universals across humans in terms of what’s most important to us, and that’s always going to be the same. But I kind of argue that it is important not to make the past an enhanced version of the present. To me, the wonder of film is to slip into another world,” she explained.


Nelson believes rather than exploring the same characters and situations, historical films should strive to look at things through another lens.

“Is it another film about Winston Churchill? Or is it telling us about a different person? Does it show a variety of sexes and genders, races, and classes? A lot of times, we see aristocrats and very powerful people. And that makes sense because they’re often in the middle of a historical complex. But we need to see films about people like us,” she said.

Historical films at the Oscars

Nelson’s book is timely with the Academy Awards airing this Sunday — and six of the 10 Best Picture nominees are set in the past.

Nelson said part of the reason historically based films tend to do so well at the Oscars is because of the pageantry and budget that goes into making them. With extravagant costumes and sets that are required to make a historical film believable, it’s often well-known directors with a good track record who can command big budgets.

“The other thing is you must have a big ego as a filmmaker to withstand the criticism because I think people critique and attack historical films in a much stronger way than other kinds of film. Because it speaks to them like ‘You’re talking about my past.’ Even if it’s not your country, it’s your sense of the world and how people work. Whereas with fiction, it’s just not as personal,” she said.

“With the Oscars, obviously, power and money are very important. So that would be a huge factor. And then the genre, I think, retains that prestige.”

As for her predictions, Nelson said she expects Oppenheimer to sweep this year and take home the Best Picture award. The film, she said, followed many of the principles lined out in her book.

“It’s so experimental in the way it switches from black and white and colour and moves across time. You as the audience member are kind of jostled and I think that’s a very responsible way to do history because it doesn’t go together in this linear way, it’s all broken up. To me, this mimics history,” she said.

“I think Christopher Nolan is a great director for doing historical film because he’s always played with time and space and meaning, which is a fantastic perspective to bring to history.”

In addition to her book, Nelson also hosts a podcast called Moving Histories where she and other film professors Robert Burgoyne and John Trafton have in-depth discussions on historical films, including those gunning for an Oscar this year.

Nelson’s book, Making History Move, will be available in bookstores and online March 15.

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