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The glamour -- and false simplicity -- of TV history

by Phil Moscovitch

History student Patrick Reed says his work suddenly became intriguing to others as soon as he started working on a television documentary.

"I go to archives, and people bend over backwards to help me. It's the whole allure of film. The same applies to professors: nobody would ever come up and say 'Oh, I hear you're working on a really interesting paper,' but they do want to talk about the film. Even this interview is an example of that," he said.

Reed, a doctoral student in Canadian history, is researcher and co-writer on a film in the series A Scattering of Seeds, now in its second season on History Television.

Reed became involved in the film through a near-comic set of circumstances. He and director Laurence Green put together a proposal on a Jewish refugee who came to Canada in 1944 -- a story related to Reed's MA thesis research. But the producers, looking for "insider" stories, were not interested, since neither Reed nor Green are Jewish.

Reed recalls saying to Green, "Well, your wife is second-generation Dutch," and the two promptly proposed a film on Jane Aberson, a Dutch woman who immigrated to Canada in 1925 and died earlier this year at age 98.

Aberson spent most of her life in Dauphin, Manitoba, and became a celebrity in her native Holland through the series of newspaper columns about farm life in Canada that she wrote for over 30 years. Reed said her home in Dauphin became "sort of a way-station for Dutch immigrants. Anyone Dutch moving to the Prairies would pass through."

In 1991, From the Prairies with Hope, an English translation of some of Aberson's letters, was published. The film is currently being edited, and is slated for broadcast in January.

Reed is enjoying this out-of-academia experience ("It seems almost self-indulgent to just spend hours in the library reading"), but he has also been disappointed by the slapdash, simplistic nature of the TV business.

As a doctoral student, he knows how complex history can be. He complained that the series producers, on the other hand, have no interest in ambiguity. "They're taking these people and making them heroes. I mean, it's about the creation of Canada -- it could be government propaganda. The shows are all the same: the hard work, the perseverance. But that's not the way it always was," he said.

Professor Graham Carr, the History Department's Graduate Program Director, said the nation-wide decline in graduate history program enrolment means "more history grad students will be working in areas such as the production of documentary film or CD-ROMs."

He added that "despite shrinking job opportunities in the traditional academic market, the boom in historical films, documentaries, commemorations, museums, et cetera, suggest that there is a wider social appetite for history in some form."

As for Reed, he hopes to finish his PhD and continue working in both academia and film.

The Scattering of Seeds Web site is at

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.