What can film contribute to a heritage site which already offers visitors the direct encounter?
Films can never replace the real thing, but they can encourage new ways of exploring, perceiving, and understanding. They might look to prepare you for what you’re about to experience or help you process what you’re seeing. Either way they should lean-in to the strengths of what visual time-based storytelling can uniquely contribute. They must aim to compliment rather than compete with places themselves.
A primary consideration for a film in a heritage context is often its didactic contribution to the visit: What might a visitor need to understand to fully appreciate a place? A film might provide a frame of reference that contextualises a key set of concepts, themes, or narratives. But films can also transcend their didactic role and draw on a myriad of more subtle techniques to go much further. Places are not just for understanding but for feeling.
Films in a heritage environment should be an active rather than passive experience. Not a just vehicle for imparting introductory points but one that challenges the visitor to participate in the visit. A format that inspires visitors own investigations rather than dictating too much. One that offers tantalising glimpses rather than giving it all away. An experience that sparks the imagination and leaves room for visitors to draw their own conclusions. Something that raises questions as well as answers.
This might involve playing with scale; whether conceptual, temporal, or visual. Drawing attention seamlessly between the macro and micro to offer fresh perspectives. Something that can touch on both the significance of a century but also immerse you in a moment. Potentially taking you beyond the site itself while simultaneously moving you closer to it.
Films about landscape can offer unique perspectives. Contextualising vantage-points that might be impossible to experience on foot. Compressing layers in the landscape to draw the visitor in or expanding layers to encourage a step back. Going beyond the naked eye to simultaneously highlight detail and expanse. These are not just visual tools but can be used didactically and impressionistically to enhance the storytelling, while aesthetically rooted in the place itself.
Films about buildings shouldn’t attempt to stand-in for a visit but can help you explore them differently. A balance needs to be struck in being true to a location but without giving it all away. Capturing the essence of places without pre-empting the visitor’s own opportunity to inhabit spaces for themselves.
The choice of raw materials that a film is comprised of is key to it truly connecting in a heritage context. In part the provenance of assets, archive, props, and locations. Offering novel conceptual or visual angles from which to consider a place. But also connecting at the level of texture and palette. Weaving visceral glimpses of the very fabric of a place into the storytelling and visual techniques can help draw visitors’ attention. This makes sure that where a film explores wider issues that transcend a site, it can still do so through the unique lens and aesthetics of the site itself. This approach can also help embed the film within the tone, mood, and pace of a place.
Film is more than seeing, it’s also listening. Not only to words but to the site itself. A site-specific score is a technique that sees a film’s music and sound design predominantly generated from fragments of location recordings. This offers something that can both reflect and reinterpret a place, and further embeds the film within the environment. It also offers another reason for the visitor to stop and appreciate the unique sensory elements of where they find themselves.
Beyond connecting with a place, films need to connect with people. Films might in fact be thought of as advocating for the heritage sites they inhabit. Helping make a relatable case for a place’s significance and relevance to the visitor.
Films can help us explore the parallels and contrasts between how we inhabit places today and those who came before. Sometimes evocative historical reconstruction can offer the human touch needed. Sometimes a fresh perspective on our contemporary activity that can best offer a conduit for the past. Either way it’s about helping visitors to make these connections for themselves and taking a curious mindset beyond the film into a wider encounter with a place.