A History of the AHA O’Connor Film Award

Heide Fehrenbach is Board of Trustees Professor in the History Department at Northern Illinois University. Her first book, published 20 years ago, was the award-winning Cinema in Democratizing Germany (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995). Her most recent book, edited with Davide Rodogno, is Humanitarian Photography: A History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015).

Nearly 25 years ago, when Robert Brent Toplin successfully proposed that the AHA sponsor an annual film prize, the move seemed simultaneously innovative and overdue. Cultural history was on the rise, and historians were increasingly turning to film both as a source, and an object, of historical inquiry. John E. O’Connor, for whom the prize was named, was an early pioneer in the field. A professor of history at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he founded the journal Film and History, published books and articles in the area, and led the AHA’s project on “The Image as Artifact.” Toplin would go on to author books such as History by Hollywood and serve as editor of the “Masters at the Movies” series in Perspectives.

Initially, Toplin’s original wording for the prize (that it recognize “an outstanding film or video dealing with any aspect of history”) made the AHA Council nervous. It was too capacious, some argued, and would allow the nomination of films like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which “might be considered a great Hollywood movie, … but is not great history” (Minutes of AHA Council Meeting, 27 December 1991). As a result, prize guidelines were modified to include language about “accuracy” and the prize was housed in the Teaching Division to emphasize its expectations regarding educational value. In 1993, the AHA awarded its first film prize.

Over the next two decades, the AHA bestowed its annual film award exclusively on historical documentaries: some notable, some less so. By 2012, the O’Connor Film Award was in crisis. Robert Rosenstone, author of the influential History on Film/Film on History and a leading expert in the field, who chaired the last committee to award the prize, diagnosed the problems as multiple. Submissions were at low ebb; most were of insufficient quality. The lack of quality entries, he argued, was the result of the prize’s marginality, both within the profession and beyond it. Filmmakers didn’t know about the award, and AHA members didn’t to care about it. Even filmmakers who submitted films and won came away disappointed since it brought neither fortune (no cash award) nor fame (no publicity). In mid-2013, Robert and I were tasked to review the film award and resuscitate it, if possible.

The main problem was visibility. We needed to find a way to enhance the stature of the film prize among the AHA membership. Only then could it be made relevant to filmmakers and production companies. Robert suggested that the award be broadened to include dramatic features, given their outsized impact on public perception and discussion of history (see, for example, your favorite news provider’s recent coverage of Selma). He also urged that the prize be housed in the Research Division (to put it on par with book awards), and that AHA members be included in the nomination process.

Musing about ways to increase participation in the film prize, I was reminded of Cold War Berlin. At the turn of the 1950s, West Berlin officials, with discreet help from US Information officers, were looking for ways to make the new Berlin Film Festival a “democratic showcase” for Western culture in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe. They hit upon the innovation of the “public choice” award. From 1952–55, Golden Bear prizes were conferred on the basis of which film won the most audience votes.  (In case you are wondering, Disney’s Cinderella won by jury vote in 1951, the inaugural year.)  Since then, of course, we have seen various permutations, including the People’s Choice awards, begun in 1975.

Inspired by these models, minus their ideological and commercial ballast, Robert and I advised that the name of the prize be changed to the “John E. O’Connor Historians’ Choice award”; that nominees be submitted, discussed, and seconded by AHA members on a website open to the public; and that the prize be advertised on social media. In addition, we suggested that prominent film critics—such as A.O. Scott of the New York Times, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times—be invited to comment on their favorite historical feature or documentary. This, we felt, would energize the ranks, enliven the proceedings, and attract valuable publicity for the prize. The nomination process would draw upon the broad expertise of our members, resulting, we hoped, in diverse nominations and a lively exchange of opinions. The moniker “Historian’s Choice” would underscore our collective professional investment in the award.

Ultimately, the AHA Council and Research Division declined our suggestion to re-name the prize. Nonetheless, we urge our fellow historians to embrace the award and make it their own. For only when it becomes our award—the Historians’ Choiceaward—in both practice and perception will it succeed in attracting the filmmaker interest, quality submissions, and public attention it deserves.

So let the nominations and discussions begin. In future years, we hope that this process will take place on a public website. After all, as we endorse and debate the merits of media representations we demonstrate the concerns of our craft to a broader audience. Through our evaluations and engagement, we can help shape public understanding of history as a practice. And maybe, just maybe, we can affect the public history that appears on our multiplex, TV, and hand-held screens.

For details about nominating a film, visit the John E. O’Connor Film Award page. AHA members can nominate and discuss films directly through AHA Communities.

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