Interview a senior citizen (over 65) about film-going before 1960 and write a report on your findings
There are two parts to this assignment, the interview itself and the essay aboutthe interview.
You will turn in both your list of PREPARED questions (10-12) and a 800-1200 word oral history essay explaining who your interview subject was and reporting on the interviewee’s responses, contextualizing them in relation to the period and the version of film history presented in class.
Students are encouraged to interview subjects who lived outside the U.S. during this period; students may conduct interviews in languages other than English as long as questions and paper are translated. Interviews may be by phone or Skype. Begin your search for an interview subject immediately, but you will want to wait until at least mid-quarter to conduct the interview so that you have a better sense of this period before asking questions
The goal of your oral history interview is to gain insights into the filmgoing experience between 1930 and 1960 that may not be reflected in text books or lecture.
Finding Your Subject
Your interview subject can be a relative (for instance, a grandparent), a neighbor, or anyone else, as long as they can speak about going to the movies during the classical era. It is fine—even encouraged—for you to choose an interview subject who lived outside the U.S. during this time. Ideally, you will be able to interview your subject in-person, but in a pinch, you may call or Skype them if the are not local. Part of the assignment is to find an interview subject;
if you do not have a relative available, you can try to find someone to talk to at a senior living facility. In approaching your subject, explain that you are completing an assignment on U.S. and foreign cinema before 1960 for your course, and you’d like to ask them a few questions about what they remember from this period, and what their film going experience was like.
If your interview is conducted in a language other than English, that is fine, but the questions should be translated into English for submission of your assignment, and your essay should indicate which language was used for the interview. Also, note if certain concepts or terms were difficult to translate.
Oral histories help us to retrieve and clarify aspects of history that are usually not accessible or made available to us in published history books and articles. While it is easy enough to obtain a sense of “major events” occurring in the film world by reading newspapers, searching online, and consulting trade and critical journals, none of these sources provides us with a sense of what it was like to experience cinema as a creative participant, theater owner,
film technician, or movie spectator during the period we are studying. Although oral histories provide us with a “subjective” account of events in the past, they can help us to pose fruitful questions regarding film culture and politics, as well as provide immediate insight into how film culture affected people at different locations in different ways. Occasionally, they yield important facts that have been forgotten or overlooked by public and institutional discourse, as well as by historians. So, in conducting an oral history, you are contributing to the public history of cinema during the first sound era.
If your interviewee was born before 1930, they will probably remember the period of the Depression and possibly the introduction of sound to cinema.
If s/he was born before 1940, they will probably remember WWII and related propaganda, the controversy surrounding the Atomic bomb, the Classical Hollywood star system, newsreels before each film, and the rise of animation.
If s/he was born after 1940, they will probably remember the introduction of television, 3-D and widescreen, and European and Asian “art films.”
Please ask questions that reflect some of these topics, as relevant.
If your interviewee worked in the film industry, that is great. The interview should address both production and film-going. You are not expected to find someone who worked in the industry.
If your subject was not residing in the United States during any of this period, please ask the following: Did s/he primarily see films from the country in which s/he lived? Was s/he able to see U.S. movies where they lived? If not, why was s/he not able to see American movies? If yes, what kinds of films (genres)?
If yes, what were his/her favorite actors, genres, or directors? Did s/he receive any information about American movies (photos, news clippings, etc.) even if they couldn’t watch the films? What kinds of information? Did they go to see other national cinemas at movie theaters? What kinds of films? What languages? How did those national films compare to Hollywood films (if they had access to U.S. cinema)?
For all respondents, ask if any particular movies stand out in his/her memory. What were the movie theaters like that s/he attended most of the time? Where were these theaters located (city, downtown/ neighborhood)? Did s/he have any favorite genres, directors, or stars? (Please have him/her identify these.) Did s/he read fan magazines (which ones?) or write fan letters? Is there anything special that they think you should know about the movies before 1960? How did film going differ then compared to now?
HOW TO INTERVIEW
PREPARE ahead of time.
• Prepare ten to twelve questions that you would like to ask the subject about her experience (you will probably not get to ask all of them).
• Arrange enough time for the interview (at least half an hour to talk), and conduct it in a place where your subject feels comfortable (usually either in her home or in a non-noisy public place). Make sure you arrange these aspects of the interview well ahead of time.
• Have a notebook, computer or audio recorder ready – make sure you ask the subject ahead of time whether it is okay for you to take notes or record what she says. Since you won’t be publishing the material, it’s unnecessary for her to sign a release form.
“AN INTERVIEW IS NOT A DIALOGUE”
—Willa Baum, “Oral History for the Local Historical Society”
[notes below adapted from her essay, as well as from “Making Words Fly” by Corine Glesne and Alan Peshkin, Becoming Qualitative Researchers.]
The interview is not about you, or what you think. The whole point of the interview is to get the subject to tell her story. Limit your own remarks to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide the subject.
Keep your reactions to a minimum. Besides being generally encouraging and interested in what the subject has to say, don’t react too strongly or too personally (“that’s just how I feel about it!”), since often she will realize they have an audience and try to entertain or please you – this will throw the subject off her own story and what’s important to her. Treat her as an expert from whom you wish to learn.
Ask questions that require more of an answer than “yes” or “no.” Start with “why,” “how,” “where,” “what kind of. . .” Try to avoid the very general question “How did you FEEL about moviegoing?” Instead, ask more specific questions.
Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask a series of questions all at once. Probably the subject will answer only the first or last one.
Ask brief questions. We all know the speech-maker who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture, gets up and asks five- minute questions. It is unlikely that the subject will need more than a sentence or two for her to understand the question.
Have patience. Silence is OKAY.
Some people like to take time to think before answering a question – give them the time. Relax, write a few words on your notepad, smile encouragingly, wait.
Don’t worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be. A few fumbled questions will help put your subject at ease as she realizes that you are not perfect and she need not worry if she isn’t either. It is not necessary to practice fumbling a few questions; most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.
Listen, and don’t interrupt. Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your subject is straying from the planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let her go on, but jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask them later.
You will often get the best specific examples by simply allowing people to tell their stories in their own way. You can encourage with a smile, nod, an “uh..huh” or “yes,” but that should be the extent of your interruption. You should prepare follow-up questions as you listen, but don’t interrupt with them.
If your subject does stray into subjects that are not pertinent, try to refocus the interview judiciously and pull her back on track by going back to a previous subject and connecting a new question to it. Say, for example, “Before we move on, I would like to ask you a little more about X…”
This is an interview, not an interrogation.
Do not point out contradictions or statements which you believe may be exaggerated or false. Remember, you are trying to get a sense of how this person sees her own experience; whether it is accurate or not is not really for you to judge, and does not matter in any event. Certainly, you should note contradictions in writing your evaluation, but don’t challenge your subject about the accuracy of her account. If you’re confused about something because you have read conflicting accounts, however, you can tactfully say,
“I have heard or I have read..” This is not to challenge her account, but rather an opportunity for her to bring up further evidence to refute the opposing view, or to explain how that view got established, or to temper what she has already said. If done skillfully, some of your best information can come from this juxtaposition of differing accounts.
Don’t use the interview to show off your knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Don’t worry if the subject seems to like you or not – she may like you fine but not be demonstrative about it (cultural differences may be important here). Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do. Be polite, and grateful. Sending a “thank you” card of some kind is appropriate.
IF YOUR INTERVIEWEE GAVE SHORT RESPONSES
If your interview subject gave short, one-word responses to your questions, it is my hope that you intuited the need to ask FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS and/or to rephrase the original question in order to get a more fleshed out response. Obviously your written report will be difficult if you didn’t get full answers during your interview. Leading an ineffective interview does not let you off the hook for the written component, and you should not blame your interviewee for incomplete answers when you should have asked for clarification or more detail. If you are concerned that you don’t have enough information to write a report,
there may yet be time for a follow-up.
IF YOU ARE CONFUSED ABOUT CONTEXTUALIZING THE INTERVIEW
The bulk of your written report will come from your interviewee’s accounts, and you are encouraged to make direct quotations (verifying that they are accurate). However, you are also expected to contextualize your interviewee’s experiences by identifying where and when these experiences took place. Additionally, you are expected to make connections between the accounts your interviewee gives you and the historical background we have covered in class lectures, readings, and discussions.
Do the interviewee’s experiences comment upon a period or film movement we have covered in class?
Do these experiences confirm, complicate, and/or contradict the “textbook” version of film history as we have covered it?
What new perspectives does the interviewee offer for this period?
What did you learn that we haven’t covered?
WHAT TO COVER IN THE WRITTEN REPORT
The report may not have time or space to cover all of your interviewee’s responses. Prioritize what is most insightful, revealing, or original details that you learned from your interview. But again, these SPECIFIC details should be contextualized within a broader understanding of the period.
IF YOU WANT TO CITE ADDITIONAL SOURCES
Again, the bulk of the written report should rely upon the interview, but you are welcome to reference course readings or other published sources as relevant for context. Be sure to properly cite other sources.