How important are fiction and film as sources of geographic knowledge

Geographers have only become interested in the study of films and fiction as a source of geographic knowledge in the past 30 years. For studies in landscape and place geographers have preferred to use literature instead of mass media which suggests that there is little geographical interest to be found in the mass media.

Some view films are being purely entertainment whose primary purpose is to make money; they don’t see them as being reliable sources of geographic knowledge as it can be difficult to make geographical connections between images and the effects of those images on real locations. Film however mediates social knowledge therefore cinematic representations are integral to understanding our place in the world.

Hanna (1996) states that; “representations of places in the media play a crucial role for both the development and definition of those places”. Through film, histories can be invented and reinvented, boundaries redrawn and entire populations redefined. “Northern Exposure” is an American television series that uses the real town of Roslyn as the set for its “fictional” town of Cicely. Roslyn’s identity has been changed as a result and both the fictional and real become blurred. Fans of the show come to see the landscape that appears in the programme and are not interested in the rich history of Roslyn as a coal town. New meanings become attached to the buildings in Roslyn through consequence of the series.

In Dublin for example Temple Bar also has elements of fictional Vs reality. The streets were re-cobbled because the film ‘Far ; Away’ was filming scenes there. They needed the area to look as it would have years previously and erected old street signs and lampposts which remained to the present day. The set has become embedded in our culture and attracts many tourists each year who want to see an “authentic” view of Dublin city, although in reality they are looking at the remains of a film set. The creation of place and meaning is central to films. Geographic research on film deals with both the space within the film and the space which the film occurs.

In films cities have been represented both favourably and unfavourably depending on the social circumstances at that time, when in fact cities are a complex mixture of both positive and negative characteristics. When a city is recorded in a film it remains unchanged even though the city will develop and change over time. Film essentially captures an image of a certain time in space, an image which reflects society and the landscape it depicts.

One main concern is the construction of meaning and accuracy of representation in film. This is especially important in educational purposes as films may include either intended or unintended messages. The “study of film should empower students and others by allowing them to analyse critically the images presented to them” (Jenkins and Youngs, 1983). Geographers must link the multilayer of meaning, place, space and scale in new ways that allow us to understand better the dramaturgy we construct.

Although one cannot rely on film and fiction as a source of geographic knowledge in the complete sense, they do provide ‘windows’ into the ideological and cultural views of the filmmaker and shows how societies express their world views. In other words the personal or individual view of the director becomes the social, because it is a reflection of the values held by the director’s culture.

In both documentary and popular film hidden agendas may lurk beneath the surface. Although documentaries appear to be more factual than popular films they cannot be presumed to be unbiased, objective perceptions of reality.

When using films and fiction as a source of geographic knowledge it is important to assume an air of impartiality to allow oneself to decipher what is essentially fiction/entertainment and determine what represents reality. It is necessary to “read between the lines” to discover the geographic knowledge.