Re-shaping collective memory with Disaster Film


The majority of all films are fictional, in that one or more aspects of the film are constructed. in other words, they include events that are recreated from reality or did not otherwise happen at all. Although fictional film can be a representation of something that happened or a more romanticized version of reality, it can only try to be as convincingly realistic as possible. An easier way of looking at it is to compare it to documentary film. In contrast to fictional film, documentaries only show images that happened in real time, not staged. However, even though what you see in fictional film is not real, it is able to achieve the impression of ‘an unmediated directness of representation’, given the term ‘immediate experience’ by twentieth century film critic Robert Warshow (Fluck). Especially the way in which fictional film can reproduce and mimic emotions, is what sets it apart from other forms of historical documentation. Cinema can become a way of writing history. As a result, fictional film can cause real life effects, because they can make you feel as if it was real.

A special category within the broad spectrum of fiction film is the ‘disaster film’. The focus of these films is always a disastrous event and their resulting chaos (Filmsite). They make use of a range of emotions such as fear, panic and anticipation, and there is always an element of survival and sacrifice present. Although the disasters in these films are often caused by aliens, meteors, diseases or monsters, as is the case in ‘Cloverfield’, the emotions they evoke can make for a very realistic experience to make you feel present in the disaster.

This is where disaster films can almost transcend their fictional status. They are able to represent and mimic chaotic disasters in such a compelling way since they alter how we collectively view and feel about previous disastrous events. As the French philosopher Halbwachs argued: “History is something that no longer lives in society, while collective memory is an ongoing process within society” (Halbwachs). In other words, our collective memory is constantly being reproduced and shaped, it does not stay the same and is being influenced by current events. Therefore, fictional film’s specific representational possibilities are an important medium through which the collective memory is shaped (Fluck). Despite that fictional film has no historical correctness, its “immediate experience” can shape collective memory (Fluck).

With regards to disaster films, they are therefore able to alter the collective memory of how we remember and envisage disasters. Richard Reeves argued that: “Mass or popular history will be based on the images preserved on film, video, or new technologies. […] How we see ourselves will depend not on what we are formally taught or made to read, but on what we see or what we can be shown” (Hill).  In this sense the “Hollywood history” of disaster films partially replaces the genuine history of real life disastrous events.

This change in collective memory becomes particularly important for International Relations as the fictional film’s impressions of certain events indirectly influence current debates and politicians. As Bleiker argues: “And it is in this realm that art can become politically relevant: it can contribute to discussions about the nature of threats and their impact on political communities, about the memory of trauma and its shaping of future policies, about the fundamental definition of security and the ensuing relationship between inside and outside” (Bleiker 2009). Bleiker also mentions that UK scholars Christopher Hill and Andrew Linklater both acknowledge that feeling and intuition in decision-making has a crucial role (Bleiker 2009). The effect of fiction film on our collective memory is thus a legitimate concern as to why one would research its process and effects.

To demonstrate the relationship between disaster films and collective memory we decided to analyze the international blockbuster disaster film ‘Cloverfield’ from 2008. We chose this film because it was one of the first films to make numerous references to 9/11, both in the film itself and in the film’s marketing strategy. We believe that 9/11 is an appropriate event to analyze the effect of fictional film on the collective memory because 9/11 is currently one of the most vivid and shared visual memories in the western world, and thus a constant subject in our collective memory that is being shaped and altered via visual imagery. The film is set in New York and tells the story of a sudden attack on the city centre by an unknown monster. It’s main distinctive feature is that it is almost shot entirely in a cinéma vérité, or ‘found footage’ style. Found footage is characterized by its perspective of a single camera held by one of the main characters (point of view), causing shaky camera work (Foundfootageweb). As a result, due to the location, the chaos of the attack, and camera work it includes numerous similarities with the found footage from 9/11, the imagery we remember most from the terrorist attack.

Therefore, disaster films such as Cloverfield are able to shape our collective memory, despite being fictional film. With the use of a range of associated emotions and the use of multiple references to previous disastrous events, the disaster films change how we as a global audience remember and visualize these events. This distorted version of history will influence debates and how politicians and the general public memorize and visualize disasters such as terrorist attacks.

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